The digital advertising platform era faced its first high-profile brand safety issue several years ago when it was found that major national brands’ ads on YouTube were placed next to ISIS recruitment videos. The murky mechanisms of programmatic advertising took a big hit. So did the reputations of unwitting brands that were doing the advertising.
Things have somewhat spun out of control since then. A poll of U.S. marketers, conducted in 2017, found that 68% said their brand had been exposed to “brand safety” issues. Furthermore, it reported that, despite YouTube’s notable brand safety issues, publisher sites, Twitter and Facebook all ranked as having higher risk.
But while advertisers may complain about content, they will never run out of space to promote their message. The way I see it, brand safety is a publisher problem.
Your Revenue Or Your Readers?
The primary response to advertisers’ demands for better ways to identify “brand-safe” content has been to rely on technology. Advertising technology (adtech) companies are racing to create algorithms that can process an article’s content and categorize it as positive, negative or neutral. Natural language processing (NLP) and image recognition will be used to recognize if an article is positive or negative and make a determination if an article is “brand safe.” Programmatic technology will then be able to pick ads that work when the content falls into a gray area.
But this solution has a major flaw. If publishers can only monetize good news, where is the incentive to create stories that lie in gray areas? This is because this solution is aimed to solve the problems of major content platforms. These platforms process waves of content, of every type. Having a way for advertisers to prioritize brand-safe material is not going to damage the nuanced and varied content that is published through their platforms.
But, this doesn’t account for publishers that rely on their unique message to attract their audience. If brands have the power to sort by the most brand-friendly content, the only content that will generate revenue will likely be the lightweight and the saccharine. In turn, this is the content that publishers will prioritize. Adopting a step like this will distort the neutrality of publications, and it takes another dangerous misstep: It puts the needs of the advertisers before the needs of the readers.
Even in a brand-safe environment, publishers’ primary focus must be their audience.
Why Publishers Can’t Afford To Soften
You could argue that it’s naive to consider publishers as having a “mission” that goes beyond generating revenue, and you’d usually be right. But maintaining a voice that speaks to your audience is crucial to maintaining a revenue-generating model.
Perhaps one of the highest-profile examples of how pandering to advertisers can have disastrous effects on content is YouTube’s monetization efforts. YouTube’s brand used to be built on original, user-created content. It was a diverse, unique platform that connected with audiences through varied, real voices. This was what made it into a channel people loved. In a skew toward maintaining advertising revenue, however, YouTube reportedly began assessing videos for their appeal to advertisers and prioritized that way.
Its unique creators who once differentiated the brand say they feel abandoned and confused about why their videos are buried in the search results, are no longer appearing on the trending page or are being quietly demonetized. People began recognizing that the content was just a vehicle for advertising. This has led to many of its creators speaking out and even deserting the platform entirely.
The paradox for publishers to overcome is that softening your edges to appease advertisers erodes brand credibility. So, how can publishers continue to generate revenue with content advertisers won’t touch?
Measuring The Impact Of Every Reader
The first step is to measure revenue alongside reader engagement. Publishers that kowtow to strategies focused on brand safety are likely to see spikes in effective cost per thousand impressions (eCPMs) in the short term before a drop-off in reader numbers and page views per session as readers grow tired of a one-dimensional approach.
By focusing on the long-term success that comes with loyal readers, publishers are able to find the sweet spot between content that challenges and informs readers, and content that entertains and appeases advertisers. By encouraging readers to interact with the publication as an entity, rather than on a story-by-story basis, we can measure the effect that brand credibility has on reader revenue.
This can help to build a future when eCPMs of individual pages will no longer be a crucial metric, but the average overall revenue generated by each user is the defining measuring system. Publishers should adopt a measuring system that focuses on optimizing the average revenue per user (ARPU), dovetailed with more varied monetization approaches.
A layered approach to monetization can be applied automatically for different types of content, and publishers will have more options for the weighting of advertising across these content types. Programmatic will ensure higher revenues from brand-suitable content while deprioritizing content that advertisers want to avoid. Measuring using ARPU shows publishers the success of their engagement and monetization strategies combined. It can mitigate the effect of brand safety by optimizing monetization on other pages without damaging their brand or turning loyal readers away.
Publishers shouldn’t be forced to give advertisers what they want, but create content so valuable and unique that the audiences they attract can’t be ignored by advertisers.