Brand Safety is in the Eye of the Beholder8 min read


Over the past year there have multiple incidents of brand safety issues that have plagued YouTube. Much has been said on what, if anything, YouTube can do to address these issues and regain the trust of large-scale advertisers. And to that point, the argument could be made that brand safety is really only a large-scale advertiser issue, which is due to their advertising campaign goals. Performance marketer (demand gen marketers, user acquisition marketers, etc.) & SMB marketer goals are different than those of large-scale advertisers. They care about hitting CPAs or driving efficient CPCs, not spending large sums of awareness dollars to achieve view-through or brand lift goals. Because of that, they only spend their money if they’re seeing dollars & cents ROI and they have no tolerance for waste, which in this case would come from serving ads in front of non-relevant YouTube videos some of which could be non-brand safe.

Example: If you’re a language learning app marketer, like our client, Babbel, and you serve your ad in front of extremist content, not only is it non-brand safe, but importantly to that marketer, it’s most likely not going to drive performance. It’s wasted spend and they notice the effect immediately because it directly affects their campaign goals.

Additionally, brand safety is largely in the eye of the beholder. Of course, ISIS videos are nearly (yes, nearly, see example at end of this paragraph) universally not brand safe, and are highly unlikely to drive any sort of performance, but what about conservative or liberal political viewpoints? How does Google decide if they’re brand safe or not for each individual advertiser? Would a marketer for the NRA think that videos about guns are not brand safe for their campaigns? Wouldn’t a marketer for Planned Parenthood want to run their ads in front of videos talking about the pro-choice, pro-life debate? Those are extreme examples but they illustrate a point. Brand safety is in the eye of the beholder and, more importantly, brand safety concerns melt away if you give marketers the ability to specifically target the types of videos that align with their products, services, or organizational ethos. Heck, you could actually want to target ISIS videos if you’re a marketer working for a non-profit who’s trying to spread a message of peace & understanding to potential terrorist recruits.

Having said that, there are only two basic approaches that YouTube, or any other platform, can take to address brand safety. One is a focus on the supply-side (the content on their site) and the other is, naturally, on the demand-side (how they let advertisers buy against their content). To date, Google’s efforts have touched on both supply & demand, but arguably with more focus on supply. We’ll break down their efforts below and point to how Brite’s solution helps nearly completely solve brand safety from the demand side for our marketer customers.

Google’s Supply-Side Brand Safety Solutions:

In January Google announced a couple new supply-side policies to try and address brand safety:

  1. YouTube channels must have more than 1,000 subscribers and 4,000+ hours of watchtime in order for the channel to be monetized (have the ability to run advertising on it).
  2. Adding more staff to manually vet videos marked as spam, flagged or community strikes

Google hopes this supply-side approach will give large-scale advertisers more confidence in running video advertising campaigns on a platform that constitutes the largest audience for video in the world.  However, brand safety issues on YouTube cannot be completely solved by supply-side approaches like those listed above unless YouTube were to fundamentally change its platform. This is due to YouTube’s model of being a user generated content (UGC) platform AND its massive scale. With over 400 hours of video being uploaded every minute to YouTube, it’s not possible to catch all offending content in real time. It’s much simpler for a more traditional media platform, say someone like ESPN, to address brand safety using supply-side tactics because it produces all of its own content and has editorial review over every piece of content it hosts on its site. And, as with anything, adding human beings to do manual processes are never optimal, especially for a platform of YouTube’s scale.

Google’s Demand-Side Brand Safety Solutions:

Google has also introduced a couple demand-side policies to address brand safety:

  1. No more programmatic premium buys via its Google Preferred program (see Logan Paul et al.)
  2. Tiered media buying program

On its face, there are some issues with these two demand side approaches. The first policy only affects large-scale advertisers who have enough money to meet the Google Preferred’s minimum spend requirements, which can range from hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars. Most advertisers simply can’t meet those thresholds so this policy has no effect for their campaigns. The second policy is essentially an arbitrary sliding scale of an advertiser’s stomach for where their ads appear. Very sensitive, normal sensitivity, & virtually no sensitivity. What do those tiers mean and how are they defined? Your guess is as good as ours. As with any platform that owns the auction (demand-side) & the inventory (supply-side), Google has mixed incentives with its YouTube platform. How can they fill as much advertiser demand (i.e. collect advertiser revenues) with its video supply without running into brand safety issues while also hitting large-scale advertiser KPIs? That’s the rub. YouTube’s beginning to see the limits of what advertisers deem as acceptable supply that they’d like to run their ads against, but they still need to serve as many ads as possible to hit their revenue targets for Wall Street. Tough spot to be in.

Brite’s Demand-Side Brand Safety Solution:

We actually don’t have a ‘brand safety’ offering. This is because we don’t take one-size-fits all position on brand safety because, as illustrated with the NRA/Planned Parenthood/ISIS examples above, brand safety is in the eye of the beholder. What we do offer our customers is the ability to specifically choose the types of YouTube videos they’d like to run their ads in front of. This is called contextual or content targeting and it simultaneously solves the issue of brand safety and performance for marketers. It turns out when you give marketers the ability to only target YouTube videos that align with their product, service, or company ethos they no longer worry about brand safety. If you’re CA Tech, another customer of ours, and you’re leveraging Brite’s platform to target videos on Youtube that are about identity & access management software (IAM), you’re not worried about your ad running in front of an ISIS video. It’s important to note that content targeting is a tool and when used correctly, it’s an excellent one. However, like all tools, it has its applications & limitations. For example, content targeting is not a great tool for driving short burst, high spend media buys for awareness purposes that you may use for a tune-in style campaign for a televised event. Audience targeting is great for that because it’s not restricted by the content of videos it runs against, but then you run into brand safety issues. Content targeting is excellent for giving you search-like ability serve your ad to someone who’s about to watch a video directly related to your product or service. Right person, right place, right time.

In sum, Brite content takes the age-old position that content is king. We enable our marketers to achieve content alignment on YouTube for their products & services, which inherently takes care of brand safety issues as well as drives better mid to low funnel performance for their campaigns.