Is your brand at risk online?

The furore over big brands’ ads appearing next to controversial content on Facebook is yet another reminder that the web can be a dangerous place. While there have been significant developments in recent years that make online advertising safer, brands still need to make sure that their agencies have a robust policy in place to avoid the kind of bad publicity that BSkyB, Nationwide and M&S recently faced.

Essentially, two strategies are needed; one that deals with the truly awful content that no brand wants to be seen anywhere near – porn, illegal file sharing, content inciting hatred and violence and so on – and another that minimises placement on sites that may be inappropriate for your brand. Without the right experience it can be tricky to navigate the vast seas of long-tail performance inventory accessible in ad exchanges and SSPs. We know that using these inventory sources improves reach and performance, but you need specialist tools and a fair degree of expertise to avoid some of the dodgier content they contain.

In many ways, avoiding the worst of the web is fairly straightforward. Companies like integral Ad Science and Project Sunblock are experts at identifying bad sites and protect brands by blocking ad delivery onto their content. On top of this, blacklists can be used to avoid buying bad inventory in the first place, although building lists is a laborious task as they need to be comprehensive to be effective – our own blacklist contains well over 10,000 sites and grows almost daily.

While most ad impressions in the long tail are on uncontroversial content, some pages may be viewed as unsuitable for one brand, but fine for another. Sometimes it’s just personal taste. This means adopting a more bespoke approach to brand safety – adjusting controls for different types of content, selecting keywords to avoid, even restricting delivery to certain content categories. If this still isn’t enough – and you are prepared to sacrifice reach and performance – then a white list or ‘walled garden’ of manually selected sites may be the only answer.

And then there’s social media. There is still no external control over the type of content that ads might appear next to, although Facebook recently announced a new content review policy and promised to develop an “automated way to prevent and/or remove ads appearing next to controversial content” – measures which met with a lukewarm response from many big brands. The pressure really is on for Facebook, Twitter and other social platforms to take more responsibility and ensure that brands are kept away from inappropriate content, or they will simply spend their money elsewhere.

Fundamentally, all inventory supply providers, especially the ad exchanges and SSPs, need to play a much bigger part in ensuring the quality of the impressions they are selling is good enough – at least at a basic level. It should not be impossible for these companies to vet suppliers and refuse to pay for bad inventory. After all, if I bought a bag of cherries from a supermarket and found half of them were rotten, I’d want my money back.

No agency wants to deal with an apoplectic marketing director raging about the call they just got from a newspaper delivering the bad news that their brand appeared next to dodgy content – even if it was just a handful of impressions out of billions. Brands need to feel confident about spending money online and understand that the huge benefits brought by online advertising massively outweigh the vanishingly small risk of damaging their brand. That’s not to say that bad things will never happen – the same is true of offline media – but agencies that adopt a robust, proactive brand protection strategy and use available technology tools intelligently are well placed to minimise any risk and keep brands safe online.

By Tony Evans, Corporate Development Director, Crimtan.