This article is sponsored by Oracle Data Cloud.
The digital world can be a scary place, so it’s no wonder that brands and agencies are clamoring to find solutions that protect brand equity without sacrificing the scale advertisers need to stay top of mind for consumers.
In doing so, many are relying on stringent keyword blacklists to protect them from a brand safety disaster and insulate them from content associations that are not suited to their brand image or message. Yet the effectiveness of that tactic is limited by the clumsy and overbroad limitations from blocking based on exact matched words or terms.
The advertiser conundrum
Keyword blacklists consist of words or terms that are unacceptable to the advertiser or media buyer. There is a traditional list of content categories that most brands want to avoid, though the amount of tolerable risk varies from brand to brand. That list includes the standard Interactive Advertising Bureau brand safety categories: arms or weapons, illegal drugs, tobacco, adult or obscene content, hate speech, death or injury, and terrorism.
But the problem with blacklisting based on exact matching keywords alone is that the approach is missing an important ingredient—context—which is paramount when defining suitable inventory versus aiding in the isolation of innocuous content.
If you’re a content advertiser, blocking that word would automatically rule out any content related to “The Walking Dead,” one of the most popular television shows in history, as well as popular movies such as “Deadpool” and bands like the Grateful Dead.
Worse, it would block millions of webpages, online discussions, news articles, and other content using innocent and common terms that include the word “dead,” such as weightlifting (dead lift), sleep-related issues (dead tired), political/track races (dead heat), the environment (dead zone), directions (dead end) and security (deadbolt), just to name a few.
We all want safety, but that seems like a brain-dead way to get it.
Protecting one’s brand should not mean that advertisers stop influencing their ideal consumers, but rather that they’re able to reach them in the right environments and moments where the message will be at its most compelling. Contextually aware targeting solutions don’t have blinders on when it comes to excluding content, and with their rise, it’s only a matter of time before the stringency of exact-match keyword blacklisting is reassessed.
The publisher plight
While diminished audiences are a problem for advertisers, blacklisting may have more serious consequences for media companies. Advertising dollars are being funneled away from reputable news sources, opening the door for fake and inconsequential news to continue to permeate the web.
For example, keyword blacklists tend to get more extensive over time as new words are added, while words are only rarely removed. The unintended consequence here is that traffic ends up being programmatically diverted toward long-tail publishers and platforms over credible, well-established news sources. Pound for pound, The New York Times contains more words from keyword blacklisted categories than Bored Panda; therefore, programmatic platforms will tend to favor Bored Panda.
Brand safety and hard-hitting news are not mutually exclusive. And there’s a considerable risk associated with optimizing away from news, as studies have shown ads perform better in premium editorial environments.
“Brand safety is top of mind to publishers and we are working in unison to ensure the integrity of brands' messages are upheld,” said David Minkin, VP of strategy and planning for The Wall Street Journal. “Brands thrive on trusted platforms where they can engage with diverse audiences of the highest caliber. That said, broad sweeps like blacklists without any context is not an effective way to ensure brand safety. As an industry, it's imperative we become more strategic in our approach.”
The consequences here could cause a journalistic shift where publishers are forced to reprioritize certain types of coverage for survival, compromising the quality of news information in our democracy.
The good news? Intelligent solutions to brand safety issues are out there. By shifting away from exact matching keywords, a contextual view of page content can inform media associations based on overall page relevance – ensuring safety and scale for advertisers, and the preservation of integrity for publishers. For that reason, it is incumbent upon all of us to make more informed choices with our dollars and propel the ecosystem forward.