Why Your Ads Are Showing up on Breitbart and TMZ (And What You Can Do About It)

Recently, the press has been reporting on the difficulty the Vanguard Group has experienced with advertising on controversial sites. This is just one of many high-profile cases in which companies are unintentionally advertising on sites that contradict their brand values. For those of us in adtech, this exposes a technological problem threatening our industry that no one wants to talk about: exchanges have little control to where ads are displayed.

Brand safety is a huge issue to most companies. No established brand wants their products associated with porn, hate speech or extreme politics. Adtech companies understand this, which is why they make it possible for advertisers to “blacklist” certain websites, meaning they can select certain sites to avoid. In light of the recent issues surrounding fake news, this issue has become even more front and center. A few exchanges, like AppNexus, have announced that they will block sites that promote hate speech (explicitly Breitbart News) while others, like PubMatic, leave it up to individual advertisers to blacklist the sites they want to avoid.

While adtech insiders are debating which method is better for brand safety, the reality is that companies like The Vanguard Group still end up advertising on sites they didn’t anticipate or intend. That’s because neither method addresses the fundamental problem: blacklists don’t work. Or rather, they don’t work 100% of the time, and for a company like the Vanguard Group, “most of the time” isn’t good enough.

If you ask any AdOps team, they’ll have experienced the nightmare scenario when a client to shows a screenshot of their ad next to some content that was not blacklisted quickly enough. That happens because no matter hard they try, it’s hard to effectively blacklist every site you’d want to avoid.

A better approach is to build a whitelist. Instead of trying to eliminate certain publishers, when you build a whitelist, you build a list of approved publishers and advertise exclusively to the publishers on that list.

Demandbase uses a whitelist of about 2,000 top trafficked domains that are B2B focused, are not reliant on user-generated content and have high editorial standards. We have even more restrictive industry-specific whitelists for niche or regulated industries like Financial Services and Pharmaceuticals. This allows us to be 100% sure of brand safety while delivering ads.

Now when any media buyer sees the word whitelist, they ask, “What about scale?” There is no doubt that a manually vetted whitelist is going to have a lower reach than a keyword-match blacklist that broadly blocks topics. But if there are real concerns about brand safety, no amount of scale can make up for poor brand experiences. Our whitelist consideration process not only takes brand safety into account, but looks at suspicious traffic, fraud, and ad clutter to provide a high-quality network. When comparing our whitelisted network of sites against a blacklisted network loaded with ad fraud, effective reach is not a significant difference and our network has a lot less waste. We’ve found that coupling our account targeting to a contextually relevant industry-specific whitelist leads to higher-quality, more engaged traffic.

So how do you set up your own brand-safe, high-reach whitelist? There is no easy answer. It takes some careful thought and planning, as well as a healthy dollop of data.

Here are a few tips you can use to build a robust and scalable whitelist:

  • Review a recent campaign source report and look at the top domains. It’s likely that 85% of your traffic comes from a manageable number (hundreds) of domains. It should be easy to vet these domains.
  • If you subscribe to an ad verification service, they publish rankings of sites by network quality. The top trafficked sites have a lot of inventory. It’s quick work to scan the list and eliminate the off-topic domains.
  • After creating a whitelist, optimize, optimize, optimize. Look at engagement rates. Look at which sites are producing sales opportunities. Look at which sites are responsible for closed deals. We have been continually tweaking our whitelist for years, adding and removing sites to strike the right balance between scale and quality.

While whitelisting requires a bit more thought, it’s the only way to guarantee a brand-safe experience and highly-engaged traffic.