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Context effect: How to assure brand safety in the digital ecosystem

programmatic advertising

In cognitive psychology, 'context effect' holds that an event or object is more favorably perceived and remembered when the surrounding environment is comfortable and appealing. For advertisers and marketers, this means a brand’s value can increase or decrease in worth based on the context in which it’s seen, or by what’s next to it. Context effect can be a positive force when ads are placed alongside premium content, but it cuts both ways: Since the dawn of advertising, buyers have been concerned about damaging their brand equity if they are inadvertently juxtaposed against something unseemly. This concern has been put on overdrive with the rapid expansion of digital advertising.

With the digital ecosystem growing rapidly, threats to brand safety are everywhere. Baby food ads can appear next to hate speech; global luxury campaigns can show up on a fake news site; airline banners can appear alongside reports of a grisly plane crash. And if the digital advertising business feels big now, it’s still growing: US digital ad spend is expected to reach $77bn this year, marking the first time marketers in the U.S. will spend more money on digital advertising than on television ads. As a result, brands have more reason than ever to seek reassurance that their marketing dollars will improve consumers’ perception of their brand image rather than put it at risk.

In a programmatic world where advertising transactions occur in milliseconds, billions of times a day, across millions of websites and mobile apps, with countless intermediaries - protecting brand safety can seem like a daunting, even overwhelming, challenge. But while there’s no magic wand that brands can wave to wish away the problem, there are several concrete things brands can do to help minimize risk.

Site and App Whitelisting

A fundamental step that brands can take is whitelisting, or specifically enumerating the environments where it’s safe to run ads. Whitelisting provides better protection than blacklisting, or excluding environments that are known to be inappropriate, because thousands of new ad-bearing sites and apps, some of them questionable quality, crop up daily. It’s safer to assure the worst, and run ads only in verified locations, rather than assume something that hasn’t yet been evaluated will be safe and then block it only after finding the opposite.

Whitelisting sounds like it can be a lot of work, but it doesn’t have to be. Brands can rely on an exchange that has a rigorous inventory approval process to do the heavy lifting. At Rubicon Project, we enforce strict inventory quality guidelines that require human review and pre-approval of new publisher relationships and new sites or apps within existing relationships. Sites and apps that aren’t approved by our inventory quality review team aren’t able to monetize on the exchange.

Transparency and Spoofing Protection

A brand’s ability to avoid being placed on a problematic site is only as good as the transparency and accuracy of the data it has about a placement. So ensuring that inventory attributes are passed transparently and accurately is critical. While Rubicon Project allows certain inventory sources, notably the publisher co-ops that are common media aggregators in some regions of the world, to offer inventory to bidders in a masked form, our platform ensures that inventory is transparently available to us and meets our inventory quality guidelines before we offer it for purchase in the programmatic auction.

Buyers can also be deceived by spoofing -- when a seller labels inventory as belonging to a property it’s not really from. One way spoofing can occur is when a seller misrepresents a domain; to protect against this possibility, work with an exchange that only allows domains to monetize through the accounts it knows to have rights to monetize on that domain. (You’d be surprised to know how often sellers approach us claiming to have inventory on premium sites we have direct relationships with and that vigorously prevent others from reselling.) Widespread adoption of the IAB’s recently announced ads.txt specification will help prevent several common forms of spoofing and misrepresentation.

Partner Up

Third-party tools can help provide additional confidence when it comes to brand safety. When it’s not enough to know you’re running on a generally safe site - if you want to avoid specific controversial articles on a premium news site, for example - you can use the page-level brand safety scores available from several vendors to help make a more fine-grained decision. These same vendors can also check placements at render time in a user’s browser to verify that they ran where you thought they did. One area that’s still challenging for most brand safety vendors is measuring brand safety in mobile app environments.

Leverage Private Marketplaces

If the digital ecosystem feels like the Wild West at times, private marketplaces can offer a more civilized environment. Private marketplaces give buyers and sellers the opportunity to explicitly negotiate their terms of engagement, then execute deals efficiently over familiar, high-scale programmatic infrastructure. Because private marketplaces are based on a direct relationship, it’s easier to build trust and to establish and enforce any special quality restrictions you may have. This additional safety is one factor driving increased demand for private marketplace deals, especially for premium inventory such as video and audio on top-tier sites and apps.

Use Common Sense

Finally, listen to your gut. A deal that sounds too good to be true probably is. For example, quality pre-roll video is in short supply in programmatic marketplaces, and often has clearing CPMs over $10; if someone claims to have premium video inventory at a much lower price, be as suspicious as you would be if someone in Times Square offered you a great bargain on a Rolex.

More than ever before, brands are seeking protections and guarantees to assure their confidence as they grow their investments in digital. By working with partners that combine strong policy, technology, and business processes committed to the service of transparency and brand safety, brands can win at the 'context effect' game even in the fast-growing and rapidly-evolving programmatic world.

John Clyman is VP of engineering, marketplace quality & security for Rubicon Project

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