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Why keyword blocklisting is hurting your ad campaigns

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With an increasing number of customers flocking online, many brands and advertisers were looking to capitalise on this new digital exodus caused by the pandemic.

Except they couldn't. With an over-reliance on automated keyword blocklisting, many advertisers don't realise that the mechanisms in place are actually hurting their ad campaigns, by blocking keywords which may just be relevant – if placed in the right context. If contextual targeting is the future of advertising, it may just be time to reimagine our entire approach to suitability and content online.

To learn more about this topic, we reached out to Ross Nicol, VP EMEA at Zefr, who shared some exclusive insights in his interesting piece below.

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How advertisers can navigate around unsuitable online content

While the events of the last 18 months have led to consumers flocking online to read the latest updates, publishers have struggled to translate these traffic spikes into revenue. Why? Because brands and platforms continue to add terms associated with news stories to their keyword blocklists, meaning that publishers lose out on ad-based funding for their journalistic content.

Understandably, brands have a responsibility to ensure their ads appear in safe and suitable environments. However, safety strategies such as lengthy blocklists limit advertising opportunities. By relying on this approach, brands eliminate valuable inventory that otherwise would have been available.

For example, the 2017 Manchester Arena bomb attack led to the keyword 'Ariana Grande', one of the world's biggest music stars, being blocked. Elsewhere, the 2019 Notre Dame cathedral fire in Paris had unforeseen consequences for sports publishers monetising American football content, with brands blocking the keyword, 'Notre Dame’ – and therefore any mentions of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish football team in Indiana.

In these cases, context is critical. Neither ‘Notre Dame’ nor 'Ariana Grande' had brand safety implications in themselves, outside of one specific context. In fact, these situations highlight how unnecessary, ineffective, and restrictive static blocklists are.

The suitability solution

Today, brands and agencies need to evolve their thinking. Repurposing platform data to create manual inclusion and exclusion lists and then labelling this as a brand safety strategy is far from an effective means to protect brand reputation. The complex advertising ecosystem calls for a shift away from simplistic categorisations of inventory as ‘unsafe’ or ‘safe’, towards more informed decisions based on the placement context for each ad opportunity. It’s no longer just about brand safety – it’s about brand suitability.  

Embracing a brand suitability strategy is critical. Adopting this approach aligns an individual brand’s advertising with content that makes sense for its image, customer base, and business objectives. The result? Greater flexibility, where advertising opportunities for brands are maximised and errors resulting from a reliance on platform-labelled data or semantic keyword data are minimised. 

Through analysing 18 months of keyword blocklisting data, Vice Media found that LGBTQIA, politicised, heritage, and race terms within its content were often flagged as unsafe. Recognising this blunt approach to safety was more harmful to brands and the future of an inclusive and diverse user experience, it has now adopted a brand-suitable approach to overcome this.

Minimising risk with human intervention

While decisions around contextual suitability for brand advertising are driven by technology, human involvement is critical to building an effective brand suitability strategy. Only in conjunction with human supervision can the chance of errors be minimised, especially in the case of video advertising. 

Machine learning is excellent for speed, scale, and reach. But when it comes to words, humans understand that these can have different meanings based on context. Human intervention helps pick up on crucial nuances that wouldn’t be detected by an algorithm on its own – resulting in more accurate targeting and avoiding keyword misalignment. 

For example, while a human could recognise the advertising potential of a placement alongside the popular children’s YouTube video, ‘Who took the donuts?’, leveraging a machine learning model alone could miscategorise the content as 'junk food'. 

Meanwhile, research has found that targeting videos using a cognitive approach delivered more effective, relevant and suitable advertising, benefiting both the brand and the consumer. 

Adopting this human/machine learning hybrid approach brings three additional benefits:  

  1. Greater precision: By ensuring correctly labelled content, accurate contextual targeting and brand suitability can be guaranteed, thus minimising waste.   
  2. Greater scale: Leveraging human cognition allows relevant content to be identified that improves reach and performance. For example, while static keyword lists would label the term ‘battle of the bands’ as harmful, human intervention ensures this content is accessible to brands. 
  3. Greater optimisation: By constantly reviewing content, new trends or issues can be identified that keywords and channel lists simply cannot account for. This allows for appropriate proactive decisions to be taken around video content in particular, to block an impression before it is served, again reducing wasted ad spend.

Fostering industry collaboration

While brands continue to safeguard against advertising in unsuitable environments, building a media ecosystem around brand safety and suitability requires a concerted effort from all parties.    

Agencies have been very influential in this area and are taking a leadership position. IPG Mediabrand's announcement in 2020 of its Media Responsibility Principles was followed by the launch of Group M's ‘Responsible Investment’buying framework this year, both of which aim to ensure advertising works better for all parties.

On the platform side, the desire to support a responsible ecosystem has seen YouTube become the first digital platform to receive accreditation for content-level brand safety from the Media Rating Council.

Industry bodies are also playing their part through a series of initiatives to raise standards across brand safety and suitability and encourage transparency and accountability. One such is the WFA's Global Alliance for Responsible Media (GARM) launched in 2019. GARM brings together marketers, media agencies, platforms, and industry associations to create a safer digital media environment for brands and consumers. It has developed standard definitions to ensure that the advertising industry categorises harmful content in the same way, helping to prevent this type of content from being monetised. Another example is the Conscious Advertising Network, a coalition of over 70 organisations formed to ensure industry ethics keep pace with the technology of modern marketing.

A brighter and safer future

The past 18 months of uncertainty within media environments has put significant pressure on brands and their agencies to ensure safety and suitability are central to their advertising.

Brands must work with partners that offer them long-term value through higher-quality data bringing transparency and control. They should embrace a brand suitability mentality, adopting sophisticated safety approaches – while keeping a human element central to this – and implement pioneering industry standards such as GARM.

In doing so, they can safely navigate the challenges, avoiding unsafe and unsuitable ad placements, while not missing out on valuable inventory.

Ross Nicol is the VP EMEA at Zefr. Header image: Hany Farouk

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