3 Ways to Implement Brand Safety Measures That Won’t Inhibit Potential Traffic

Covid-19 exposes the limits of keyword-based tools

There are other options available than just blocking certain keywords. Getty Images
Headshot of Andrew Serby

In mid-March, marketers were faced with a sudden new reality: Content, across every vertical and topic, had a through-line of Covid-19. This required a rapid response to an unprecedented issue.

The first step many advertisers took was to avoid Covid-19 content by asking legacy brand safety partners to block keywords like “corona” and “Covid-19” when they appear on pages. This approach has exposed a larger systemic issue. Keyword-blocking technologies are largely ineffective, devaluing quality content while fueling a fear-based ad-tech ecosystem: blocking good content based on fear of potential risk.

By taking a more nuanced approach, we can collectively solve today’s challenges and come out of this crisis with an approach built for the future, and not the past.

The good news? Rather than relying on keywords, brands have adopted more sophisticated ways to achieve brand suitability. Here are three ways brands can succeed in the short term while building long-term value.

Demand nuance, not negativity

Keywords have been an incredible tool for search advertising, helping advertisers more effectively reach customers in moments of intent. But for brand suitability and content avoidance, keywords don’t have nearly the same impact. In fact, they don’t actually work.

For example, LaMelo Ball, the top NBA prospect in the 2020 draft, bought a franchise in Australia to help out the town that was ravaged by the fires. While this story on ESPN would be considered by readers to be a sports story first and a human interest story second, it was instead blocked on the page for violating brand safety.

So how do brands achieve nuance? Human cognition is a great way to start. Semantic analysis and natural language processing help understand keywords but not nuance. Without people involved in moderating content based on brand preferences, good content will continue to be punished.

Brands should demand answers from their brand safety vendors on the role people play in their process or run the risk of letting negativity destroy nuance.

Consider the cost of false negatives

A common use case for contextual targeting is avoiding false positives, with the common example being that an auto brand can discern from “Jaguar the car” versus “jaguar the cat” content.

But this crisis is exposing a new, different kind of waste: false negatives. A false negative is when a brand avoids good content because of incorrect labeling. The result is good content being demonetized and fewer people being reached. False negatives will constrain audience reach for brands and inflate media costs.

The impact of false negatives trickles down to consumers. As more pages are routinely blocked from premium publications due to legacy brand safety technology, it will be harder for quality publications to maintain free, ad-supported content, which is imperative for society, especially during crises.

For brands, it’s time to think beyond false positives and ask your brand safety vendors how they are solving for false negatives with their technology.

Differentiate brand-building strategies from risk mitigation

Most of the controversy thus far for keyword-blocking has been focused on publishers and the open web. The next phase of this conversation is inevitable: video platforms.

Rather than applying fear-based keyword-blocking strategies on the open web, brands can use this as an opportunity to build long-term brand equity in video. This requires a shift from focusing on mitigating risk to maximizing relevance.

For example, if you’re a brand focused on fitness and health and wellness, this is a perfect time to capture your audience in front of relevant home fitness content that’s driving huge viewership on YouTube. Or if you’re a food and beverage brand, there is a massive opportunity to advertise against cooking recipes from top creators. But by using legacy keyword tools, false negatives will block this great content if “great workouts at home while at quarantine” or “healthy recipe inspirations during corona” is somewhere deep in the metadata.

The value of whitelisting suitable content in video versus eliminating “bad content” via keywords is proven to build long-term brand value. In their 2019 study, the IPG Media Lab and Magna measured that brands that use human-trained brand suitability targeting in video drove 45% higher relevance than keyword targeting in addition to strong lifts in purchase intent, overall favorability and brand thoughtfulness.

By bluntly blocking good content based on keywords, there is real damage to the ecosystem that will have long-term ramifications. By taking a more nuanced approach, we can collectively solve today’s challenges and come out of this crisis with an approach built for the future and not the past.


Andrew Serby is the svp of marketing at Zefr, overseeing marketing strategy for the leading contextual targeting platform for brands.