Keyword blocking is a partial – and often ineffective – solution to brand safety issues; industry conversation is shifting towards contextual suitability, says Nick Morley.

It’s fair to say the media industry today is in a different place to where it was when brand safety challenges dominated the headlines in 2017. However, IAS research has found that almost three-quarters (72.7%) of agencies cited brand safety as the biggest concern in 2019. As we end the year, it is once again top of the news agenda, as household-name brands were revealed to have unwittingly run ads alongside videos promoting fake or misleading cancer cures. This highlights how minimising the risk posed to brands online and building trust with key partners should remain a clear priority for global advertisers.

Keyword blocking can be restrictive and ineffective

The headlines around YouTube’s most recent brand safety challenge – on a Friday the 13th no less – could be considered an unlucky news day for the brands impacted. These types of news stories likely leave brands questioning how they can make sure they aren’t aligned with damaging or harmful content.

Brands may turn to keyword blocking, a brand safety tool many organisations use to protect themselves from potentially harmful content placements. However, keywords can often be inflexible, cutting off an array of valuable audiences and opportunities to connect. Simply put, excessive protection measures are making some brand’s media selection too restrictive and consequently, ineffective. The solution? A greater level of nuance for the industry.

Lists need to be constantly updated

With digital advertising’s reach constantly extending across a varied range of content, vetting is increasingly vital and so, defining specific undesirable terms can seem like an efficient solution. By listing terms such as ‘immigrant’, for example, advertisers can steer clear of any content that encourages intolerance. However, this simplistic method is also what makes blacklisting restrictive. Assigning a keyword to your blacklist means excluding all content featuring the term — including placements that could enhance positive brand perception.

Choosing the correct keywords, at the brand and campaign level, is vital. So is updating those lists. IAS data found some brands are still blocking keywords associated with terror attacks from over two years ago, including ‘London Bridge', ‘Westminster’, ‘Ariana Grande’ and ‘Manchester’. As a result, brands are missing valuable opportunities to tap into stories dominating the news agenda; such as pre-match analysis of an upcoming Manchester City (or United!) game.

Brand safety is in the eye of the beholder and the tolerance for risk depends greatly on specific brand priorities, offerings, and values.

Contextual suitability means a bespoke safety mix for every brand

The marker of contextual suitability differs globally per brand. What is acceptable to a toy manufacturer, for instance, will differ significantly to the safety criteria of an alcohol brand. However, brand suitability must be more complex than an industry comparison. If you take food brands as an example, fast-food chain McDonald’s risk threshold would differ from the organic and sustainable brand, Whole Foods – even though both are targeting consumers with food and beverage options. Instead of cutting off potentially risky content using generic terms, advertisers should take a more considered approach, starting by defining their individual brand interpretation of what safe and suitable content means.

These brand safety discussions have always been a delicate trade-off between suitability and scale. But the industry conversation is increasingly shifting towards suitability as a more nuanced targeting measure. With advertisers blocking specific keywords surrounding breaking news stories as a proactive and preventative plan, the impact is also felt by publishers. The sell-side is seeing their valuable inventory – especially inventory linked with news content – blocked, with their efforts to procure valuable and highly engaged audiences going to waste. By checking and refreshing brand suitability at the very least on a monthly basis, all parties will feel the benefits.

In the meantime, it’s the responsibility of each brand to work with its partners – be that agencies, direct with publishers or verification providers – to establish its own marker of suitability. As brands build their confidence with brand risk thresholds, by taking a nuanced approach rather than blocking entire content categories, they can allow for contextual suitability across global markets.