Scaling Brand-Safe Mobile Programmatic Campaigns

One of the clearest benefits of programmatic buying is its ability to achieve scale; 80% of mobile display ads are now being traded programmatically. With programmatic scale comes less human oversight to manually minimize brand safety concerns. Ensuring scalable mobile brand safety requires a savvy choice of partners and a nuanced combination of tools.

Understanding Brand Safety

In the advertising ecosystem, brand safety is an umbrella term covering all the controls, tools, and practices that digital advertisers employ to protect brands from negative reputational impacts. By far the most common of these threats to consumer reputation is the placement of ads adjacent to illegal, unethical, scandalous, or otherwise inappropriate content that could result in negative media attention. 

Some of the most famous examples include: 

  • Hyper-partisan or extremist content (e.g. the “adpocalypse” of 2017 where brands such as L’Oreal and Verizon were featured next to neo-nazi YouTube videos) 
  • Age-inappropriate content (61% of parents whose young children watch YouTube claim to have seen mature content advertised to them)
  • Content that conflicts with brand values or ad messaging (e.g. Disney removing ads from Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show following divisive comments about race)
  • Ads placed (unintentionally) next to competitors’ ads or in competitors’ apps that muddy the ad messaging.
  • Otherwise undesirable content with which to be associated (e.g. Ads by the British Heart Foundation and the Post Office being featured next to Instagram posts on suicide)

5 Facts That Prove Brand Safety’s Importance 

Brand safety is especially relevant right now. The COVID-19 pandemic has given rise to a multitude of conspiracy theories and fake news which, according to IAB, is directly causing advertisers to reduce ad spend. 

  1. Users see brand unsafe ad placements as an intentional endorsement of the negative content.
  2. 87% of consumers feel that it is the brand’s responsibility to ensure their ads are appearing in brand-safe environments.
  3. 82% of marketers believe that appearing next to unsuitable content impacts brand reputation. 
  4. 1-in-4 brands and agencies have experienced negative press following suitability incidents.
  5. 80% of people in the US would stop or reduce using a brand after seeing it advertised near extreme content. 

That final statistic came from a survey by the highly reputable Trustworthy Accountability Group (TAG). Their chief executive Mike Zaneis summarised why brand safety pays, “This survey drives home the real and measurable risk to a company’s bottom line from a preventable brand safety crisis […] While reputational harm can be hard to measure, consumers said that they plan to vote with their wallets if brands fail to take the necessary steps to protect their supply chain from risks.”

Programmatic In-App Brand Safety

There have been far fewer headline cases about mobile brand safety, but issues are becoming more frequent. This Global Insights Report from HarrisPolls and DoubleVerify found a staggering 194% annual rise in mobile brand-safety issues.

Programmatic in-app environments are, as a rule, more brand-safe than desktop environments. No advertising campaign can guarantee 100% brand safety even traditional billboards could be defaced yet the techniques and technology we explore below reduce risks to an absolute minimum. 

How to Stay Brand Safe on Programmatic

  • Avoid the Interactive Advertising Bureau’s (IAB) 11 “Sensitive Topics– These topics are: Adult & Explicit Sexual Content, Arms & Ammunition, Crime & Human Right Violations, Death Injury & Military Conflict, Online Piracy, Hate Speech & Acts of Aggression, Obscenity and Profanity, Drugs & Alcohol, Spam & Harmful Content, Terrorism, and Sensitive Social Issues.
  • Mobile Prebid Targeting and Automation – Leverage the myriad new programmatic tools built specifically for mobile in-app environments. With in-app prebid targeting or automation in programmatic environments, brand safety violations can be virtually eliminated.
  • Consider Private Marketplaces – Instead of open exchanges, programmatic PMPs grant access to premium brand safe inventory. Relying solely on these private marketplaces potentially restricts the ability to achieve scale but goes a long way to ensuring ads are only placed in reputable environments.
  • Constantly Redefine Risk – Programmatic brand safety requires risk thresholds to be regularly defined, customized, and revisited. The same should be done for your target keywords and excluded blocked words.
  • Invest in Quality – Programmatic media buying has no established measure of quality, that means brands must ensure quality by meaningfully applying their brand values and choosing their buying models carefully. Consider that different inventory and programmatic buying models offer different levels of knowledge and control over contextual environments.
  • Work with Reputable Partners – Minimize the risk of poor ad placement by only choosing reputable partners with quality inventory. Partners should also have: verifiable certifications and accreditations, multi-language capabilities, scalable tech solutions, a deep understanding of your brand, pre-bid targeting segments integrated within major DSPs, fraud-reporting and removal, and the ability to block impressions.

How Much is Too Much? 

Measures such as keyword blocking, safelisting, and blocklisting that are taken to protect companies from programmatic brand safety issues have, on occasion, been too effective. Alongside other verification tools, these reactive granular controls play an important role when PR disasters strike. However, they can restrict campaign scale.

When brand safety tools first became available, advertisers increased the inclusion of their own banned keywords, such as polarising political terms or terms associated with violence. The overuse of these broad, powerful tools became akin to using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. 

As a result, advertisers shut the door to lucrative opportunities. Terms like “knife” intentionally prevent advertising on news articles about violent crime while inadvertently preventing ads from running on cooking apps or locations featuring metaphors such as “cut like a knife”. The very blogpost you’re reading about brand safety could be flagged as unsafe now that the terms have been mentioned.

It is far better to restrict these reactive measures to urgent instances. Focus on contextual targeting that proactively seeks out desirable app environments to begin with. Mobile advertisers’ toolkits now include advanced audience segmentation, real-time campaign monitoring, and even AI-based semantic analysis techniques. Rather than blanket bans, taking a more nuanced approach using custom brand safety segments takes into account brand-specific needs without unnecessary limiting ad placement opportunities.

When brand safety issues occur, they are detrimental to app developers, brands, and advertisers. While platforms have a responsibility to censor harmful content, the continued spread of pandemic and social misinformation on social media suggests it is a battle that the biggest platforms have little chance of winning soon. It is therefore incumbent upon programmatic marketers to minimize these risks to negligible levels by using their advancing software to only place ads in suitable apps and environments.

Do you want to take a closer look at how our team ensures brand-safe campaigns? Contact us by filling out the form below.

Daniel Toledo (LinkedIn) is an experienced Programmatic Trader at Applift. He is an enthusiast for marketing, advertising, and all things tech.