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Nick Morley 

Risky business

Risky business

Navigating brand risk remains a top priority, so what’s next for digital ads? Nick Morley, EMEA MD at Integral Ad Science offers answers

Brands are well aware of the hugely expanded opportunities for digital reach.

Aside from spikes in web activity — including the UK’s record daily four-hour peak — the pandemic has driven rapid growth in web access and use of digital services, especially social media; with 60% of the total worldwide population now online and social platforms boasting half a billion new users.

It’s also important however, not to overlook equally sharp increases in brand risk i.e. content flagged as posing a risk to brands.

As content consumption and creation has boomed, so have the chances of inappropriate ad placements.

According to a recent report from the World Federation of Advertisers (WFA) Global Alliance for Responsible Media (GARM), this is especially true for social, where eight in ten pieces of recently removed content fell under the categories of spam, adult or explicit, hate speech and aggression.

Yet, this issue isn’t specific to social media. The latest Integral Ad Science (IAS) Media Quality Report shows that H2 2020 saw a rise in brand risk across the wider digital advertising ecosystem.

While brand safety is already familiar, the constantly evolving online landscape has pushed it back up the priority list. For marketers, that makes it vital to both understand industry benchmarks and find smarter ways to manage their ad adjacency accordingly.

As brands seek to harness the vast potential for broader exposure and engagement, they’ll also need a refined strategy for tackling multiple types of risk – ideally with real-time capabilities as emerging threats can evolve quickly.

The question is: What should an advertiser’s brand safety strategy look like in 2021?

The brand safety status quo

Covid-19 wasn’t the only world-changing event of 2020, with racial injustice, civil unrest and varied political tensions driving societal shifts. 

This inevitably caused disruption across the digital media space and had a significant impact on online risk.

The UK, for instance, experienced a 3.3% percentage point increase in desktop display advertising risk that drove total levels to 5.8% in H2 2020; the highest rate since 2017 — a year marked by national tragedy and high-profile brand safety incidents.

The rise in brand risk was reflected in environments globally.

Although year-on-year display risk stayed flat during H2 2020, desktop video saw the biggest rise in brand risk as a 1.4% percentage point increase sent the average to 7.7% overall.

It is however, also worth noting that mobile hasn’t been risk free - mobile web video claimed the largest risk level of all environments at 8.6% globally, even reaching 14% in the US. Meanwhile, mobile display risks for UK brands grew significantly; climbing from 3.7% in H2 2019 to 6% in H2 2020.

Identifying the main causes behind these increases isn’t necessarily easy.

There are obvious trends, including correlation between higher video risk, ad spend and resulting impression volumes.

Analysis of every brand risk impression reveals some common themes; with six in ten relating to content around illegal drugs, alcohol or violence. But near-equal jumps for hate speech, adult and violence categories — up by 16.5%, 18% and 21.3% respectively for the UK in desktop display — demonstrates greater risk across the board.

Time for multi-faceted risk assessment

The situation is too complex to enhance online protection by simply circumventing all areas of risk, as this would remove significant volumes of opportunity.

Instead, the best way forward lies with nuanced risk navigation framed around true content context and sentiment. More specifically, brand marketers must follow two key steps that will help them make informed decisions on a case-by-case basis.

1) Focus on suitability, not just safety: 

By now, it’s widely recognised that the use of only blanket brand safety techniques are often overzealous and restrictive.

While a list of specific terms to avoid might seem like an efficient means of curbing risk, it also limits online advertising opportunities and valuable impressions can be wasted; particularly when lists feature generic keywords.

One recent example of this includes considerable publisher losses fuelled by blocks on coronavirus keywords.

As a result, attention is turning towards suitability-centric approaches that blend robust digital security and customised analysis to determine whether content matches the values, target audience, and risk parameters of each brand.

Every placement can be evaluated against unique safety parameters — including the granular content categories advertisers want to positively target and exclude — and distribute ad spend accordingly.

For example, not all pandemic-related content is negative or harmful to a brand, so advertisers needn’t miss out on opportunities to interact with engaged audiences by inadvertently blocking high-quality, contextually suitable publisher inventory.

In doing so, brands will not only be able to minimise different forms of risk at scale, but also maintain access to a diverse array of valuable inventory.

2) Tapping into contextual technology:

Much of the current thinking around defending brand reputation centres on environmental quality and it is easy to appreciate why.

As highlighted by previous IAS research, half of UK consumers will stop using brands if their ads appear in low-quality spaces.

Maximising contextual relevance and suitability is a part of achieving high-quality publisher inventory. Plus, the ultimate objective of the right time, place and user also calls for higher emotional classification.

For example, leveraging in-depth semantic analysis that uncovers both the real contextual meaning and sentiment of content offers brands optimal control: enabling them to serve ads in line with content relevance, risk, and the emotion it conveys.

Looking ahead, there is a strong likelihood the industry will see more investment and interest in this area as brands increasingly aim to make better use of precise first-party data, reduce reliance on third-party insight such as cookies, and raise the bar on digital privacy.

With the continued focus of brand safety on the digital advertising agenda, it's critical to take key learnings from the past.

In a climate of vastly heightened risk, smarter methodologies are even more important.

For example, the 4A’s Advertising Protection Bureau (APB) and WFA’s GARM created the Brand Safety Floor and Brand Suitability Framework, to serve as the necessary building blocks for more consistent parameters and policies to address brand safety and suitability.

At IAS, we recognise the positive impact this framework can have for the industry, and we continue to collaborate with the industry on its development and adoption.

Ultimately, by digging deeper into the meaning, context, and emotion of online placements, brands can steer their way through convoluted risks to find content that provides greater scope to connect with the safe, suitable audiences that represent the ideal fit for their unique needs, while supporting quality publishers.

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