Is contextual targeting the solution to brand-safe advertising?

Guest Column: Pankaj Sharma, Country Head of MGID, India, discusses in detail the steps taken to ensure keeping a brand’s reputation safe when they advertise online

e4m by Pankaj Sharma
Updated: Jan 28, 2021 9:26 AM
Pankaj Sharma MGID

A brand is only as good as its reputation in the market. This statement is enough to highlight the need for brand safety and justify the steps that advertisers take to ensure that their brand is not associated with anything that jeopardises their reputation. Imagine if you are reading an article on a news website about a severe earthquake in Latin America and on the same page you see a banner ad from a tours and travel company advertising trips to Mexico. This is a classic example of misalignment of the ad and the content and this would not bode well for the brand whose ad was displayed on the article.

The Internet Advertising Bureau defines brand safety as keeping a brand’s reputation safe when they advertise online. To be able to ensure that there are no negative associations for a brand, particular care must be taken to avoid placing ads next to inappropriate content. The inappropriate content can be related to negative sentiments, negative news, conflicting brands or even crude or obscene content. In this context, negative sentiments would comprise content related to subjects that go against the sentiments of the public whereas negative news would be coverage or news article about the on-going pandemic or other natural disasters. These scenarios have been recognized by publishers, AdTech companies and advertisers and certain steps have been taken to ensure that brands are kept safe from such misalignment.

Keyword Blocking/Blacklisting:

Keyword blocking is the practice where certain keywords, generally those associated with negative or controversial topics, are blacklisted by brands so that, if they have been used on a webpage, their ad will not appear there. The most recent example of this was during the pandemic when the keywords related to COVID or coronavirus were blacklisted by many of the top brands. From the perspective of ad networks, the result of such a practice is a drop in the serviceable impressions across various news websites, national and vernacular alike. Network revenues for publishers and AdTech companies take a hit too since they do not have as much inventory as usual to monetise.

From the perspective of campaign management for advertisers, excessive keyword blocking can be damaging to the performance of the campaign. If an advertiser blocks several keywords or marks them as negative, then the campaign will become overly restrictive and the efficiency of the ad spend would be affected. They might also lose the opportunity to show their ads on good content where the keyword or part of the keyword has been used in a different context. So, while brands might want to be overprotective and add as many words to the blocklist as possible, it is not a good practice and it still not ensure that your ad would not appear on contextually irrelevant content.

Contextual Advertising:

Contextual advertising has taken great strides and progressed farther from keyword blocking and URL blocklisting. There is more focus now on matching the ad with the content on the webpage where the ad will be displayed. This practice ensures that the ads are more contextually relevant for the audience. When we say contextual relevance, we mean keeping in mind language, individual words, how the phrases relate to each other, which demography of the audience they address and where a large part of the audience is located. Accounting for the many ways that a word can be used or interpreted will determine the success of an advertiser’s contextual strategy.

With contextual advertising an advertiser would gain the advanced capability to understand web pages, videos, audios, and other formats on a page in their full context, and then targeting ads on the pages that are found to be contextually relevant.  It is noteworthy that contextual advertising has been around for years and with the recent focus on data and user privacy, focus has started coming back to this approach. This has also led to many innovations and new technical solutions to emerge in this field for advertisers and it continues to evolve every day.

Way Forward To Contextual Advertising And Brand Safety

In a recent study conducted by IAB Southeast Asia and India (IAB SEA+India), it was found that most companies recognise the importance of brand safety and take steps, to some extent, to implement correct practices. Most companies make use of all available brand safety tools like blacklisting, whitelisting, keyword blocking, etc, but very few companies invest in on-boarding or working with a verification partner, while the highest used tool was blacklist.

The focus on brand safety and the demand from advertisers for quality and brand safe inventory has shown that brands are ready to pay extra to maintain their reputation. Taking heart from this, publishers are also ready to put in efforts to tag and classify their content correctly because advertisers would be willing to pay premium CPMs for contextual friendly inventory. Of course, this entire process is still under evolution and will probably keep evolving as we see more AI based technologies emerge to help increase the effectiveness of contextual advertising. On their part, advertisers also need to ensure that they choose the right AdTech partners to execute their campaigns. The right AdTech company would not only support the efficient execution of their campaigns with positive ROIs but would make brand safety its priority.

A lot of recent events, such as the exit of third party cookies due to the users’ demand for data privacy and the focus on brand safety have put contextual advertising into the limelight. It can be safely said that with more advertisers looking for audience targeting options, rather than behaviour targeting, contextual will play a very significant role in the future of digital advertising.

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not in any way represent the views of

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