Why the YouTube ad boycott is pointless

Experts say the YouTube advertising boycott is unlikely to yield profound change. / Source: StockSnap

The YouTube ad boycott could reportedly cost Google up to $750m. And while this is chump change for the digital giant, if the movement was to pick up speed, it could arguably put a real dent in Google’s coffers – if not transform the digital marketing industry entirely.

But, like so many boycotts these days, insiders say it’s not likely to have much impact at all even if concerns are justified. That’s because advertisers and their agencies will likely become more selective in their placements, opting for brand-approved channels and sites, as opposed to outright abandoning all ad spend with Google.

Mike Grehan, chief marketing officer and managing director at intent-based marketing firm Acronym Media, said if anything is taking a hit, it’s Google’s reputation for artificial intelligence (AI) technology – which is why it is reportedly training its computer models to better understand context and further minimize the likelihood of misplacements.

Pointing to Google’s “obvious lack of intent in this matter,” Chris Boggs, founder of SEO, paid search and social media consulting firm Web Traffic Advisors, said he expects the boycott will simply blow over.

Brock Murray, chief operating officer of digital marketing agency SEO+, too, said he suspects advertisers will eventually return to the status quo.

“It’s a turbulent time and everything is currently taking a hyper-political skew, but this will fade,” he added.

Aaron Levy, manager of client strategy at search engine marketing company Elite SEM, agreed politics played a role, saying the Twitter account Sleeping Giants, which says it is “trying to stop racist websites by stopping their ad dollars”, influenced the most recent movement with its tirade against far-right news site Breitbart.

“They attacked brand Twitter feeds with huge social media complaints saying how bad it was for the brand. Brands panicked, screamed at their agencies and got the ads pulled,” Levy said. “Historically, Breitbart was responsible for pennies of spend and dozens of impressions – tops – for most of our clients. That said, it's still not content we want brands to be aligned with. Now we're seeing the controversy bleed into YouTube where some advertisers are pulling all ad dollars rather than using the levers at hand.”

What’s more, Levy said more often than not, these ad placements are a result of retargeting rather than intentional placements.

“It's important to remember that sometimes a brand’s audience may have, for lack of a better word... a few jerks in it,” Levy said. “The people seeing these ads likely aren't negatively influenced so it's not too much to worry about from a brand health perspective. That said, it isn't good either.”

And, Levy noted, Google has always had category-level placements for potentially objectionable content.

“What they've always lacked and what's sorely needed is a filter for controversial or extremist content around politics, sensitive YouTube placements, et al,” Levy said.

“This ain't exactly easy for a few reasons though, which is why I don't think we'll get those levers any time soon. Fundamentally, Google won't have the bandwidth to individually monitor every single, solitary, placement that's ever done. If anything, we'll likely see a lever for ‘brand approved’ placements rather than excluding negative. Long term, I don't expect it having a huge impact on revenues or spend.”

What’s more, Marc Engelsman, vice president of strategy and analytics at digital marketing agency Digital Brand Expressions and vice president of research of nonprofit Sempo, a trade organization serving the search and digital marketing industry, said Sempo research shows while YouTube advertising increased significantly in 2015, the channel was much lower in paid social usage than Facebook, which, he noted, is having its own issues with ads appearing around questionable content.

“At the same time, in the area of paid search ads, both agencies and marketers are investing more in Google than a year ago,” Engelsman said. “In short, the research would suggest that the boycott may have some short-term impact in terms of slowing the growth of YouTube as an ad channel. However, it is possible that money earmarked for YouTube will simply get reallocated back into Google’s paid search pockets.”

Mark Irvine, senior data scientist at search marketing company WordStream, said WordStream primarily manages search campaigns “rather than the programmatic ads that these brands used to love and are now boycotting”. However, he, too, said the only impact he has seen is clients becoming more selective.

“We aren’t losing clients because of this, nor are we seeing clients reduce their ad budgets,” he said. “What we did start seeing a few months ago is that clients became more selective in how they bought those programmatic ads. Our clients didn’t think twice about their ads appearing across 1 million different sites – in fact, that was considered a value [proposition]. Over the past few months, since November especially, about 40% of our largest clients that we manage have asked about removing different controversial sites and content categories from their targeting. Google’s ad inventory is large enough that removing one domain or one category of domains doesn’t strictly limit your reach on the platform nor does it reduce your spend, so I think Google will walk away relatively unscathed, except a few PR hiccups.”

At the end of the day, the boycotts may hurt the individual content publishers advertising on Google most of all.

“The notable standout would be Breitbart, which attracted a lot of the earlier attention in this situation and has a lot of watchdog groups persistently calling out brands for remaining on the site,” Irvine said.

“In November 2016, Google and Breitbart shared revenue from advertisers paying approximately $1 per ad click on the domain. In March 2017, enough advertisers [had] excluded the domain from the ads making it less competitive to buy and so now advertisers pay an average of 59 cents per ad click on the domain. All things equal, that’s 41% revenue loss for content publishers like Breitbart, but virtually nothing for Google.”

In the meantime, Boggs said competitors of boycotting brands could have an opportunity to pounce and assume control of some of the categories vacated, so once they return there’s a higher barrier to entry.

“With the boycott, big advertisers are not just leaving controversial sites – they are also forgoing placements on quality sites, videos and apps with clean reputations and high traffic,” Murray said.

“With fewer advertisers bidding on these top placements, there is less competition and prices should theoretically go down. While Google may push to reclaim lost income by hiking bid prices, I think market forces will win out. This presents a huge opportunity for smaller advertisers to target placements that would otherwise be out of reach, even if it’s only a short-term window.”

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Lisa Lacy

Lisa Lacy is a senior reporter for The Drum, covering digital and search marketing. Based in New York, she writes about how brands use technology to connect with consumers, particularly as innovations like voice search, digital assistants and the Internet of Things change consumers’ lives forever – not to mention the data these platforms increasingly collect and the security and privacy issues therein. She is a graduate of Columbia's School of Journalism. Her bucket list includes riding in the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile.

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