Why advertisers are reconsidering keyword blocklists as brand safety approaches to hard news

Michael Weaver, senior vice president, business development and growth, Al Jazeera Media Network

Brand safety has become a perennial concern for marketing campaigns. Advertisers typically rely on a shortlist of third-party vendors to guarantee the brand safety of their investments, placing these technologies and companies in an increasingly powerful position. But at what cost?

The methods for measuring brand safety usually rely on keyword blocklists. But in an effort to keep the brand safe, these lists often paint with too broad a brush, algorithmically preventing advertisers from working with publishers that are responsible and deserving of media dollars. The resulting missed opportunities for brands and critical losses for the hard-hitting news organizations cut them off from the serious — and deep-pocketed — audiences they need to reach.

Advertisers must challenge themselves, their media buying partners and their brand safety vendors to create more targeted strategies that do not punish hard news if it is responsibly reported, written and published. To do that, they first need to understand the status quo. Then, they can devise new approaches to media buying that keep their brands safe without proscribing hard news or depriving themselves of premium audiences.

Keyword blocklists prevent advertisers from reaching engaged and diverse audiences

Keyword blocklists have rewarded soft content while penalizing socially important content dealing with complex and controversial topics, including hard news. 

For example, keyword blocklists early in the pandemic prevented promotions from appearing alongside coronavirus-related content from hard news publications like CNBC, Bloomberg, The New York Times and Vox. Some of the content flagged included critical updates on what the public needed to know about the pandemic and recommendations for supporting struggling small businesses. 

“There is no brand suitability problem for advertisers being adjacent to this content — in fact, quite the opposite,” Ryan Pauley, Chief Revenue Officer at Vox, wrote to CNBC at the time. “The fact that a high percentage of articles are being flagged as brand-unsafe across premium news outlets like the New York Times or Vox is a misapplication of generic ‘brand safety’ concerns.” 

Misapplications of brand safety also create significant roadblocks for diverse, equitable and inclusive advertising and media owned by and featuring underrepresented groups. 

For example, an agency that might want to prevent promotions for its clients from appearing alongside news stories about political protests could, through a keyword block, steer funding away from virtually all Black-owned media. 

Under the current status quo, content dealing with current and, at times, controversial affairs faces an arduous road to ad monetization. The continued use of blocklists carries serious, negative ramifications for hard-hitting news organizations — especially those dealing with social and political issues affecting the underrepresented communities most advertisers claim to help. 

What’s more, advertisers do themselves a great disservice under this approach. They stand to lose out on the dollars from the disproportionately affluent readers that engage with hard news stories. 

High-quality content enhances brand safety for consumers on hard news sites

The repercussions of wide-ranging blocklists can be mitigated by updating standards and methods for determining what advertisers count as brand safe. Advertisers should look beyond keyword blocklists and focus on a broader range of contextual factors.

Brands should consider how users engage with different media and tailor their brand safety strategies accordingly. 

If a user visits a site that deals primarily with hard news or a difficult subject — cancer, for instance — that user is opting into that content experience. There is no reason for advertisers to block sites covering such topics. Moreover, these sites are generally safer than other media contexts, like a social media feed, where users may not necessarily opt into or deliberately select the content that appears. 

Consumers are smart. They know what they are getting into when they visit hard news sites. If they see a story about a violent protest on a reputable news site, they will not think that a brand advertising on that site is violent. Blocking all news stories covering violence is too crude an approach to brand safety.

Brand safety strategies attentive to these distinctions between content experiences will only produce greater opportunities for publishers and advertisers, delivering hard-hitting publishers the ad dollars they need and advertisers the premium audiences that gravitate to leading news publications.

By challenging the brand safety status quo and devising new approaches to media buying this way, everybody wins. Consumers get well-financed news critical for democracy, publishers are rewarded for outstanding reporting, and advertisers can access premium audiences. 

Sponsored by Al Jazeera Media Network


More from Digiday

Sliders test article

Agencies hope connected TV and digital out-of-home will play a bigger role in upcoming elections and politics — especially for smaller media agencies that are handling many of the less visible races in the crowded political space. For a number of media agencies looking to place their political ad dollars down in this major election […]

How CTV and DOOH are growing this political season for smaller agencies

Connected TV and digital out-of-home are playing a bigger role in upcoming elections and politics – especially for smaller agencies looking to place clients’ dollars.

CMO Strategies: Advertisers identify the top attributes on ad-supported streaming platforms

This is the third installment in Digiday’s multi-part series covering the top ad-supported streaming services and part of Digiday’s CMO Strategies series. In this report, we examine which ad attributes matter the most to marketers on streaming platforms.