What is Brand Safety? Why It's Important for Publishers

Brock Munro
July 16, 2021
April 22, 2024
What is Brand Safety? Why It's Important for Publishers

In the past, ad revenue was almost solely dependent on contextual targeting, whereby all brands associated with a particular topic would attempt to win ad space next to a related article or site. For example, for a content piece about makeup application, multiple skincare companies would compete for ad space next to that content.

However, as programmatic advertising took hold and behavioral targeting started to change the algorithms used by Google and YouTube, advertisers began to lose control over where their ads appeared.

Marketers and digital advertising agencies buying ads from Google and other online ad providers found they were no longer buying ad space on specific websites, they were buying ads targeted to people with specific interests or demographic profiles.

In 2017, this led to significant problems for Google, with big brand names AT&T and Verizon suspending their purchase of ads due to their advertising content appearing alongside videos created by terrorist sympathizers.

This brought brand safety to the forefront of digital advertising practices, with companies striving to keep their brand safe by serving ad inventory on websites with an appropriate context for their industry.

Table of contents:

What Is Brand Safety?

Why Is Brand Safety Important for Publishers?

How to Protect Your Brand

Why Is Brand Safety Important to Advertisers?

Who Decides What Is “Safe” or “Unsafe”?

Brand Safety Statistics

Best Practice to Ensure Brand Safety: Choosing Direct Deals Over Programmatic

Final Thoughts

How ads bought through google get to the wrong place

What Is Brand Safety?

Brand safety is a digital marketing definition that measures how well a brand is protected from being associated with inappropriate or offensive content.

In practice, this means ensuring that ads are not placed next to content that could potentially harm or negatively impact brand reputation in the consumer’s eyes. 

The Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) defines brand safety as the process of keeping a brand's reputation safe within the digital advertising ecosystem. However there is no one size fits all approach to protecting an advertiser’s brand, with brand suitability playing a large role in mitigating potential risks.

As the IAB states: “Brand safety is in the eye of the beholder—it all depends on what is or is not appropriate for the brand. For example, an R-rated action film might have different standards than a baby products company.”

With a recent study showing that 60% (PDF download) of adults in the US now consider a brand’s reputation, brand values, or environmental, social, and governance (ESG) position as the “most important” factors when making a purchase, advertisers are prioritizing brand safety in their online advertising strategies. 

Advertisers and publishers familiar with the term brand suitability may wonder what the difference is between brand safety and brand suitability. Brand suitability refers to brands making suitable choices for their industry. This includes choosing ad placements that are relevant to their audience.

Why Is Brand Safety Important for Publishers?

Brand safety is essential for digital publishers because it protects their revenue stream from potential losses due to inappropriate ad placement.

For example, if a publisher begins covering content that an advertiser deems to be inappropriate for its target audience, the advertiser may pull their ads and stop doing business with the publisher.

This can lead to a significant loss in revenue, as was seen in 2020, when news publishers began to cover the COVID-19 pandemic and simultaneously began to lose revenue from a broad spectrum of advertisers who were blocking pages related to the coronavirus due to it being perceived as negative content.

While brand safety is gaining awareness in the advertising industry, many small to medium publishers are still in the dark regarding brand safety practices. More prominent publishers, such as news sites, struggle to provide clear guidelines to advertisers around best practices.

Consequently, many digital publishers are losing out on valuable monetization opportunities. Understanding brand safety and being able to relay these insights clearly and succinctly to brand advertisers is essential for publishers to ensure maximum return on ad spend (ROA). Here are some things to consider.

How to Protect Your Brand

1. Ensure You Match Advertiser’s Standards

When advertisers decide on which sites they want to publish their digital advertising campaigns, they will consider several ad quality metrics, including the use of blacklisted keywords, domain authority, viewability score, fill rate, and the historical bid price of a site. If these factors don’t match the advertiser’s guidelines around brand safety, your site may be removed from its campaign.

2. Avoid Bot Traffic

Non-human, bot traffic, is widely understood to dramatically decrease a site’s brand safety score. If a demand-side platform flags unusual traffic on your site, this information will be available to other buyers. While it may not always be possible to stop bot traffic, you should aim to understand these metrics, be as transparent as possible about this data, and share the percentage of traffic in your site policy. 

3. Review Your Ad Network

Whether you partner with ad networks, video ad networks, or demand-side platforms (DSPs) to perform your media buying and digital marketing, they must provide technology that promotes brand safety and protects consumers. They should have appropriate services in place to protect against ad injection fraud and domain spoofing.

4. Partner with Brand Safety Experts

By pairing with a programmatic partner with experience in brand safety, publishers can take the guesswork out of brand advertising and protect their revenue, reputation, and compliance.

Why Is Brand Safety Important to Advertisers?

Ensuring brand safety is essential for advertisers, particularly in a digital ecosphere where media wastage—often related to viewability and fraudulent activity—proliferates.

Brand safety is important to advertisers for the following reasons:

  • It protects advertisers from having their ads placed next to unsavory content that could damage their reputation.
  • It ensures that ads are not placed on sites that are likely to produce fraudulent clicks.
  • It allows advertisers to avoid potential legal liabilities associated with their ads being placed alongside certain types of content.

While it is easy to think of advertising and web page content as completely separate entities, this is not the case. Consumers associate brands with the content they appear alongside and act accordingly. 

This association has never been more prevalent, with this decade ushering in a new media landscape.

As the IAB stated in its 2020 brand safety and brand suitability guide (PDF download), advertisers needed to become “shrewd about how to run campaigns suitable to brand identity during a historic moment when a large amount of publisher content is focused on hard news such as the growing death tolls due to coronavirus, #BlackLivesMatter, and protests that might turn violent.”

In 2020 alone, advertisers lost around $898 million on content considered unsuitable or unsafe for brands, according to the IAB. This demonstrates the potential risks to a company that overlooks brand safety when advertising online.

The global ad tech industry refers to the “dirty dozen”, 12 unsafe digital environments that can put a brand's reputation at risk. This has since been amended to include a 13th category. 

When looking to place ads, advertisers are advised to  avoid the following:

  1. Military conflict 
  2. Obscenity 
  3. Drugs 
  4. Tobacco
  5. Adult
  6. Arms 
  7. Crime 
  8. Death/injury 
  9. Online piracy 
  10. Hate speech 
  11. Terrorism 
  12. Spam/harmful sites 
  13. Fake news

Who Decides What Is “Safe” or “Unsafe”?

Who Decides What is “Safe” or “Unsafe”?

Several internationally recognized organizations are currently working together to define brand safety measures, including ​​the IAB and Media Rating Council (MRC). These agencies are working to establish best practice guidelines around brand safety to ensure a healthy advertising supply chain for brands, advertisers, publishers, and consumers alike. 

There are several measures a website owner can take to protect their future reputation and ensure ongoing performance for their ad inventory.

Brand Safety Measures

When it comes to implementing brand safety measures, advertisers and publishers should be looking to create their own guidelines outside of what is provided by the IAB and MRC. There are several protocols they can consider adopting to assure brands they are working to keep their reputation safe, their ads contextually aligned and to avoid ad fraud.

1. Avoid Invalid Traffic

Invalid traffic, such as bot traffic, is a known risk when it comes to keeping a brand safe. While some bots, like the ones used by Google to crawl and index a website, are useful, malicious bots serve to imitate human behavior, disrupt traffic analytics, and in some cases, steal information. 

2. Steer Clear of Fake News

Elude Fake News

Context is essential when it comes to ad placement. With both revenue and reputation on the line, marketers should be ever vigilant when it comes to placing their ads next to fake news.

If advertisers don’t know where their ads are being placed, they could be placing their ads next to inappropriate content with low brand suitability, and doing irreparable damage to their name without even knowing it.

Ads that are placed next to fake news can be highly damaging to online campaigns, with social media site Reddit pulling all programmatic advertising from conspiracy threads. Likewise, Google AdSense has updated its policy to avoid websites that “misrepresent, misstate, or conceal information,” as brands want to ensure they are not associated with fake news in any context.

3. Blacklisting Keywords

Blacklisting Keywords

Blacklisting keywords is a simple process whereby an advertiser’s platform stops a bid for an ad if it contains words that are deemed a risk.

While this is a convenient solution for advertisers, it can lead to a loss of revenue for publishers. 

As it stands, this technique is currently creating some tension in the advertising industry. For blacklisting to be effective long-term, the industry needs to look at more sophisticated techniques and tools.

Brand Safety Statistics

  • Bad bots represent almost 28% of all traffic. (imperva.com)
  • In a study conducted by Integral Ad Science, 56% of US digital media professionals surveyed consider programmatic advertising to be vulnerable to brand risk incidents. (advertising.amazon.com)
  • Right behind programmatic was social media, with 55% of respondents saying they consider it to be vulnerable.
  • As a direct result of this collaboration, brand ads no longer appear in the US on pirate sites at volume; representing a 90% decrease in just two years. (tagtoday.net)
  • Content alignment has been shown to deliver up to 50% higher ad recall than traditional targeting approaches. (channelfactory.com)
  • A 2019 Channel Factory study showed 33% of US ad executives flagged polarizing social issues as an extreme content risk. (channelfactory.com)
  • A 2021 study by Integral Ad Science and Neuro-Insight found that contextual ads increased ad recall by 23-27%. (prweek.com)
  • TAG/BSI found in their 2019 consumer survey that more than 80% of consumers would lessen their spend on products advertising in contexts inappropriate for their brand. (tagtoday.net)
  • According to Reuters, two-thirds of consumers at the time believed brands had full control over where their ads were placed, while 77% said advertising next to ‘unsavory or objectionable' content damaged their perception of a brand. (spiceworks.com)

Best Practice to Ensure Brand Safety: Choosing Direct Deals Over Programmatic

With brand safety issues arising from programmatic deals, advertisers are now choosing direct deals over programmatic as they offer more tools for targeting the consumers they want while also keeping a brand safe. 

Moving to direct deals can sometimes be an advantage to publishers, as direct deals may offer better revenue per impression than programmatic deals.

By ensuring they choose an ad platform that is a reputable programmatic provider, publishers can ensure their online advertising money is being harnessed for maximum ROI while concurrently utilizing the principles of brand suitability. 

Final Thoughts

Brand Safety has become an increasingly important concern for all players involved in the ad tech supply chain. By establishing clear standards and keeping on top of ad quality metrics, publishers can ensure they protect their reputation and that of their clients. 

At Publift, we work with clients to create programmatic advertising solutions that ensure brand safety and maximum ROI.

Publift has helped its clients realize an average 55% uplift in ad revenue since 2015, through the use of cutting-edge programmatic advertising technology paired with impartial and ethical guidance.

If you’re making more than $2,000 in monthly ad revenue, contact us today to learn more about how Publift can help increase your ad revenue and best optimize the ad space available on your website or app.

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