Guilt by Association

Folks think that you’re cheap, ’cause you’re known by the company you keep.” Dolly Parton may have put this little life lesson into song, but each of us probably heard something similar from our parents. As adults, we don’t usually get told who we should and shouldn’t associate with, but as advertising professionals, this lesson has important implications.

Brands are known by the company they keep. What surrounds a product’s advertising can affect brands in significant ways. For this reason, finding a clean, trusted, well-lit advertising environment should be a priority.

The Obama campaign recently found out what can happen when it isn’t. Some of its ads wound up on radio station Web sites adjacent to links for Thong of the Day and Car Wash Babes. As the CEO of the ad network that placed the ads admitted, “The ads should not have been displayed there.”

Of course, making certain our brands keep good company has become more complex with the vast array of online media choices available. Because of this, advertisers — through channels such as ad networks — seek advertising efficiency at the expense of environmental control.

However, in some recent conversations with marketers conducted by Magid Associates for the Online Publishers Association (OPA), media buyers resoundingly said they don’t want their ads running just anywhere. “You really don’t want your ad running next to questionable content,” said one account director.

And while several noted the virtues of ad networks, one marketer said when using them, “you don’t have much control over where your brand appears. You could have your brand up against something that is a negative affiliation. There’s a lot of room for error.”

While there may be no substitute for the reach and buying ease of ad networks, branded-content sites, which control their own inventory and offer transparency, deliver on the elusive promise of a trusted, reliable environment. Marketers are ensured a high level of protection by aligning their brands directly with them.

“I need to make sure my company and their brand are represented appropriately for the right audience,” said one marketer in our conversations. And it’s exactly this sort of powerful alignment between audience and brand that only branded-content sites can truly provide. In doing so, they not only protect the brand, but can greatly enhance it thanks to the powerful connection consumers have with these sites. This connection extends to the site’s advertisers, creating a “halo” effect. Consumers recognize these content sites are both a trusted source for entertainment and information, and a trusted source to learn more about relevant, quality brands. Consumers have long proven they are willing to be exposed to high-quality online advertising in exchange for access to high-quality online content.

As important as they are, trusted environments and brand halos can be hard to put a specific value on. But the advertising impact of branded-content sites can be measured.

In a recent study, the OPA analyzed independent Dynamic Logic MarketNorms data to better understand the connection between environment and advertising. Ad effectiveness scores on branded-content sites were numerically higher than on the Web in general, on portals or on ad networks — and not just for a few measurements. Branded-content sites outscored industry norms for the Internet 41 out of 43 times across the full range of advertising metrics.

Simply delivering better results is important, but being able to break through at critical moments when consumers are making brand and purchase decisions is advertising’s Holy Grail. According to our study, branded-content sites provide a 29 percent improvement over average online-advertising performance, and a game-changing 200 percent improvement over ad networks. Looking further down the purchase decision funnel at the critical measure of purchase intent, branded-content sites provide a 20 percent improvement over the Internet overall — and a 100 percent improvement over ad networks.

In the marketing mix, ad networks clearly have their place, as do portals. But quality content is the essence of the clean, well-lighted place where brands can be built, strengthened and protected. In the increasingly vast and complex online media universe, keeping company with trusted content and brands — and avoiding the Thong of the Day — should be given a lot more credit than it’s currently receiving.

Pam Horan is president of the Online Publishers Association. She can be reached at