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Exploring brand safety and how it impacts return on investment

Content matters, and placing ads in trusted, brand-safe environments is essential to advertising effectiveness

5 min read

Marketing Strategy



Now that the uproar over advertisers pulling their campaigns off of YouTube over brand safety concerns and the hubbub over Facebook’s fake news issue is over, it’s time to move on from the brand safety discussion, right?

Not so fast.

In a new study from Trusted Media Brands in partnership with Advertiser Perceptions, more than 75 percent of the brand marketers surveyed believe that brand safety impacts return on investment.

Wait, so brand safety isn’t just a “nice-to-have?” It’s also a must-have that impacts business results?

The short answer is “yes.”  The results of this new study drive home that content matters, and placing ads in trusted, brand-safe environments is now at the forefront in digital planning, seen as essential to advertising effectiveness. Advertising in brand-safe environments is believed to drive significant impact on key measures such as audience quality (83%), brand equity (82%) and brand lift (79%).  And more than three-quarters believe that brand safety impacts return on investment, or ROI (77%).

I was having an interesting conversation with an industry friend about the latest revelations about Twitter and Facebook regarding Russia’s meddling in the US presidential election. It seemed to us that Facebook and Google have been Teflon to the accusations that brands can’t trust their environments.  With the YouTube boycott months behind us, some advertisers are back on YouTube, persuaded by greater controls and use of third-party verification.  In fact, spending on YouTube has remained pretty stable over the past year, and any downward blip has been recovered, according to tracking from Media Radar.  However, advertisers are still nervous.

In fact, when asked to rank the issues of most concern in digital media buying, brand safety ranks in the top three among 51% of respondents, not far off from the premier concerns, ROI (59%) and viewability (54%).

We’ve learned some other important facts about how marketers and their agencies are thinking about brand safety now:

  • Nine in 10 marketers are taking steps to improve brand safety
  • Online publishers that can deliver safe content are at a premium
  • Brand safety is a top three concern for marketers
  • Marketers are taking a “hands-on” approach to brand safety

Ninety percent is a tidal wave of action. Right, nine in ten marketers are taking steps to improve brand safety! When asked if they have made deliberate efforts to improve the brand safety of their digital media buys, 56% said they have already (64% among agency respondents) and another 35 percent are planning to do so. Very few are not on the quest for brand safety.

We have a robust list of “rules of engagement” that clearly defines an unfavorable environment. It is centered around very specific content, keyword and types of sites,” says a marketing director participant. When we think about the definition of brand safety, in and of itself, respondents from brands versus agencies varied. Some feel it is an association with a biased political party, others feel it is a matter of keywords and many feel it is a correlation with a space that is considered positive and trusted by consumers.

How are marketers ensuring safety for their brands?  The risk of placing ads near inflammatory content, hate speech or fake news has digital planners pouring over websites and making tough determinations. The most frequent tactic, put in place by more than half of respondents, revolves around blacklisting or whitelisting specific sites/channels, monitoring site lists and avoiding political content or sites.  As a future remedy, four in 10 (41 percent) plan to increase their use of programmatic guaranteed/private marketplaces.


Sites that can deliver trusted content are at a premium.  Fake news and the general democratization of digital content have squashed the public’s trust in media, and advertisers know it.  Study respondents describe brand-safe environments in terms of what the content is —or is not. Respected brand names now have increased value for both consumers and advertisers alike.

When asked to rate a list of selected websites for their ability to deliver a brand-safe environment, branded and news sites are viewed as most safe (average 58%), social sites less so (only one third rate Facebook as brand safe (34%) and 27% do so for YouTube (only 20% among agency respondents). BuzzFeed logs in at 27% and Breitbart lands at the bottom of the list (21%).

The ground swell of brand safety concerns that started in the spring caused the earth to move this summer.  That earthquake has clearly caused a tsunami among marketers and advertisers.  Marketers are looking at performance measurement differently. The new view links ROI, viewability and brand safety to determine a digital campaign’s effectiveness. Those publishers that can use existing and new tools that capture this new model will prevail as the digital landscape rapidly shifts away from “fake content” to brand-safe “clean content” environments.


Rich Sutton is chief revenue officer of Trusted Media Brands, Inc., home to iconic brands including Taste of Home, the world’s largest circulation food media brand, Reader’s Digest and The Family Handyman, America’s leading source for DIY, among others. Sutton has more than 30 years of experience in management, marketing, startups, turnarounds and working to grow world-class brands.