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Will 2020 Push the Ad Industry to Standardize Brand Safety Guidelines?

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With rapt audiences stuck at home consuming online content, and viewership numbers increasing across every major social and digital content platform, you'd think it was the glory days for digital advertising. 

But while the pandemic has been a boom for creators and content platforms, the economic downturn has led to a reduction in digital spending. For brands, breaking through amidst the current news cycle has been a challenge in terms of how and when to effectively message and engage with audiences.

For the industry as a whole, the past several months have proven to be a master experiment in brand safety practices. With the onset of COVID-19 in the U.S., brands were quick to pull back their advertising altogether or establish wide-ranging keyword blacklists that were more detrimental than beneficial to the ecosystem. And when civil unrest spurred protests nationwide, many brands returned to the very same playbook. It became increasingly clear that brands could not be completely certain that digital advertising wouldn't jeopardize brand loyalty with customers.

This lack of certainty and assurance around clear brand safety guidelines can leave a company exposed, and leave its reputation at risk of taking a major hit. Right now, it's vital for publishers and digital media companies to align and develop a set of universal and transparent guidelines, along with measures that can eliminate some of the numerous obstacles to come in the years ahead.

The Rise of Cross-Platform "Audience-Driven" Content

The shift from linear TV to mobile/digital content consumption has steadily increased over the past few years, and with millennial and Gen Z viewing habits changing so quickly, it can be a challenge for brands to understand the brand safety practices that work best for each medium and screen; much like proper development of the advertisements themselves, there is no one-size-fits-all approach. As the advertising world reorganizes its relationship with entertainment  and the growing number of screens increases the complexity of the customer journey, it's easy to see why "opting out" has become brands' go-to, versus an attempt to navigate brand safety across the emerging wave of online content platforms.

For example, new platforms like Twitch and TikTok, the latter which has exploded in popularity since the pandemic began, each come with their own unique set of audiences and innovative formats that advertisers can leverage to gain a competitive advantage. These differences also breed variations in brand safety challenges. But this has always been true—the same disparity exists when comparing linear television and newspaper advertising. The difference today is the speed at which changes are taking place, which multiplies the intricacy of the task at hand.

Ascribing a Value to Brand Safety

The costs of just one brand safety failure can be a massive setback for a company, particularly in today's climate where purpose plays a massive role in connecting brands to consumers and illustrating forward progress. According to brand consultancy Lippincott, the average revenue growth for "Go-to Brands" that establish connection and progress among consumers in the United States is 11%, more than five times the revenue growth of brands that don't foster the same meaning for their audiences. In other words, brands are putting a lot of trust into the system each and every time an ad request comes in, and that same degree of import needs to be reciprocated by publishers and platforms. 

This value in purpose is exactly why we are seeing brands take the risk to artfully bridge the worlds of commerce and politics. At a time when the streaming wars are as brutal as ever, Disney recently signed a deal with football player-turned-activist Colin Kaepernick to provide programming across all of their platforms, including Disney+ and Hulu. And in an effort to elevate viewership, NASCAR banned the confederate flag. These examples of high-stakes decisions showcase just how far brands are willing to go to create fidelity. The digital ad experience needs to live up to that same expectation.

A Renewed Sense of Urgency to Restore Brand Confidence

2020 was already on track to be a pivotal year for online content, with Google rolling back third-party data tracking and California pushing forward its CCPA consumer privacy legislation. Amidst an election year and with the backdrop of rigid national divisions, brands still need to be able to invest in fresh content.

As data privacy regulations become stricter across the open web, publishers and brands need to be universally on the same page when it comes to COPPA-compliance and the latest FTC guidelines. While brand safety detection tools from adtech partners can assist with whitelisting, keyword blocking, viewability, and protecting against ad fraud, much of the tech that's being used today is outdated or ineffective. The industry must begin to move towards broadly adopting advanced AI-driven tech and software that can better work towards the goals of both the brands and the rest of the ecosystem at large. 

Having witnessed the impact of various brand safety nightmares firsthand, going forward it will be even more critical for brands to regain control of how their messaging is received. Platforms need to closely address the issue and work with brands to ensure their ads are placed next to appropriate content and categories. 

Brand safety in the digital ad space has always been a fluid issue, and everyone in the industry is coming at it from a different perspective. In order to mitigate issues and prevent future failures, the advertising and digital media ecosystems need total transparency, and must create a set of stricter regulation guidelines. Similar to how global privacy laws are being created, the digital media industry needs to establish long-term frameworks, where publishers, creators, platforms, and advertisers can come together and develop standardized guidelines. This will help drastically reduce the risks of costly brand safety failures, and give advertisers the confidence they need to be able to invest in the types of digital content audiences find most appealing today.

[Editor's note: This is a contributed byline from TheSoul PublishingStreaming Media accepts contributed bylines based solely on their value to our readers.]

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