Disregarding brand safety in digital advertising can be a costly mistake for advertisers, with over two-fifths of U.S. consumers saying they would stop buying a product they regularly purchase if it was advertised alongside extreme or dangerous content.

On the surface, brand safety seems like a fairly simple concept, with the majority of brands eager to keep their ads away from obviously damaging online environments that feature violent content or hate speech. But as the current COVID-19 situation illustrates, brand safety is far more nuanced and requires careful consideration.

Initially, brands were keen to keep their ads away from anything related to COVID-19, but with so much media consumption currently linked to the pandemic, this significantly reduces the scale campaigns can achieve.

Not all COVID-19 content is unsafe and 78% of consumers say advertising alongside related content wouldn’t impact their opinion of the brand. Ideally, brands need to be able to take a tailored approach, perhaps avoiding negative reports around death rates or scaremongering fake news, while placing ads alongside upbeat and authoritative accounts of actions being taken to improve the situation.

With brand safety more vital than ever at this challenging time, here are three ways brands can shelter their ads in brand safe and positive environments that amplify their message rather than risk their reputation.

Optimize the Supply Chain

Brand safety issues in programmatic advertising are often likened to open exchanges, where inventory is aggregated from a variety of publishers and sources, many of which are long tail.

Fortunately, brands can avoid content that is explicitly objectionable or offensive by optimizing the supply chain and migrating out of open exchanges towards private marketplaces or PMPs.

PMPs are run either by a single publisher or a group of publishers and are open only to certain buyers, creating a more direct relationship between the buy and sell sides. With PMPs, brands can be confident their ads won’t be served in unsuitable environments because all publisher content is rigorously and regularly assessed for brand safety. They can also be sure their messaging won’t appear alongside inappropriate advertising, as all advertisers are carefully vetted.

When PMPs first emerged they were seen as disjointed and limited in scale, but they are evolving and growing into large premium publisher networks, making high-quality inventory far more accessible.

In fact, the Ad Council recently announced the launch of a PMP for public service advertising campaigns related to COVID-19, formed from donated media. Advertisers already appreciate the growing value of PMPs in offering brand safe environments, and real-time bidding (RTB) spend in PMPs is expected to overtake spend in open exchanges this year. Ultimately, by moving away from open exchanges towards PMPs advertisers will optimize the supply chain and diminish business risk.

Employ Contextual Targeting

Advertisers are using a range of tools to address brand safety issues, such as blacklists, whitelists and keyword blocking. While these granular controls are vitally important, alongside other verification tools, they can restrict campaign scale and still leave scope for unforeseen situations to slip through the net.

Rather than focusing purely on a reactive approach, keeping ads away from unsafe content, brands can employ a more proactive strategy using contextual targeting to find environments that are not just safe but are also desirable, helping to amplify and reinforce their message and to drive a positive response from consumers.

By finding environments that complement a brand’s products and values, ad content can be aligned so brand messaging reaches consumers when they are receptive to it.

Advanced contextual targeting technologies use artificial-intelligence-based techniques such as natural language processing and semantic analysis.

These techniques enable a deeper understanding of the words and phrases on a web page, revealing their true meaning as well as the emotion or sentiment they evoke, enabling brands to make smarter decisions over whether the placement is suitable for their ad. Because this type of targeting uses contextual data rather than personal information, there is also less risk of data privacy violations than with traditional behavioral targeting.

Choose Ad Partners with Care

When it comes to protecting brand safety, it pays to be picky about digital media sources on every level. While leveraging select pools of trusted publishers within PMPs is a good start, brands keen to further limit the chances of unsuitable associations need to look further — to the ad networks behind PMPs. By exclusively working with those who hold direct connections with publishing partners, brands can ensure that the media on offer in their chosen market is transparent, trustworthy, and tightly controlled; all of which add up to a much lower level of risk.

Brand safety may seem like a simple concept but it is far more nuanced than it first appears and getting it wrong can be costly for brands, especially at this challenging time. By optimizing the supply chain through PMPs, applying contextual targeting to proactively discover suitable ad environments and adopting safe formats such as native, brands can rise to the brand safety challenge, sheltering their ads in a relevant environment and ensuring their reputation remains intact.