How Digital Advertising Works, or Why Your Ad Still Might Appear on Breitbart
Digital advertising is an inexpensive and convenient way to reach the target audience for your business—as long as it’s not also undermining your brand image.
Some major companies have learned the hard way recently that digital advertising’s drawbacks include the possibility of exposure on sites they don’t want associated with their brands.
For example, Kellogg’s, Warby Parker and other high-profile companies faced consumer complaints and bad publicity after the presidential election, when their ads were found on far-right-wing site Breitbart. Verizon, Walmart and other brands pulled their ads off YouTube earlier this year after they learned that the platform’s automated ad serving tools were placing their ads on videos advocating violence and hate.
If you’re wondering (a) why ad networks would place their clients’ ads next to controversial or offensive content and (b) whether your business should avoid digital advertising, it helps to understand how these brand missteps happened and what ad networks are doing to resolve the problem.
How does digital advertising work?
It’s easier to understand digital ads if you compare them to old-fashioned pre-internet advertising.
Back then, advertisers spent money to place their ads in specific magazines and newspapers or to air during particular radio and TV shows. These outlets had limited reach, but advertisers knew exactly what content they were supporting and which audiences they were reaching.
Now, of course, there are millions of sites where businesses can display ads, and it’s simply impossible to know them all.
Digital advertising networks like Google AdSense, which includes YouTube, allow sites to join if they meet the network’s criteria for appropriate content, audience, location, and more. Then the networks use machine learning, keyword algorithms, and consumer data to run “programmatic” ad placements on their network of sites.
For example, a snowshoe company’s ads might run on sites with content on alpine trekking and winter sports – but maybe also on sites dedicated to yeti sightings. Machine learning isn’t perfect so it sometimes includes sites that aren’t a good fit (yetis) or which cause brand damage by association (offensive content).
Another digital advertising practice, ad retargeting, means that your prospects and customers may see your ads on many sites they visit, not because your brand has bought ad space on each of those sites in particular, but because those customers’ browser cookies are set to display your ads on other sites they visit. If those cookies cause your company’s ads to appear on sites with offensive content, the customer may think your company chose to place them there, and the brand damage is done.
Where, exactly, do your ads show up?
The short answer to the question of where your ads display is, it’s hard to know.
Huge digital ad networks, programmatic ad placement, and ad retargeting give companies with even small ad budgets the ability to reach lots of prospective customers across a wide geographic area.
That’s something that simply wasn’t possible in the days before the digital transformation, when print, radio and television ads reached fewer consumers at a higher cost. This change has made it possible for small businesses and startups to build customer bases quickly and reach new customers inexpensively. Even better, from an audience-reach perspective, most digital advertising networks add new sites continuously, and sites like YouTube are inundated with fresh content to advertise on every day.
The downside of a far-reaching, constantly expanding network that can display your ads anywhere is that your ads can turn up just about anywhere, and you may never know which sites your ads display on unless someone notifies you.
Even when ad networks are vigilant about blacklisting known problem sites, new ones may fly under their radar until someone complains. If that someone is an angry customer or offended prospect, you have to respond quickly and appropriately to control the damage to your brand.
What are ad networks doing to fix the problem?
Some industry veterans say the real solution is for advertisers to demand more transparency about ad placement and better screening of participating sites by ad networks. This sort of pressure can work quickly.
For example, Google gets 90% of its revenue from ads, so losing companies like Walmart and Verizon was a major motivator to improve their ad serving tools. As of this writing, the company’s AdSense network is broadening its rules barring content that incites hate, promotes violence or advocates discrimination. AdSense could previously block an entire site for violating its rules, but now the network can block individual pages, which makes it easier to keep ads off hateful user-generated content in—for example—comments sections.
About a month after several major brands pulled their ads off YouTube, the video platform announced new audit tools. Companies can use these tools to see exactly where their ads have been placed on the site. Ad networks can also supplement their machine-learning algorithms with human reviews of content, as YouTube is doing. Human input can make ad-serving algorithms less error-prone over time, but it’s grueling work that requires screening a constant stream of new sites and videos quickly.
How can you protect your brand and still reach your target audience?
Because the number of sites in most ad networks is always changing, and because machine learning will always need human input to keep up with new sites and new controversies, it’s up to you to protect your brand’s image. Here are some best practices for your business’s online ad program.
- Talk to prospective ad networks about your concerns before you sign up and find out what their requirements are for publishers to participate in their networks.
- Know your “lines in the sand” before you launch your digital ad campaigns. This can save response time if there are complaints later on.
- Use your ad network’s opt-out lists to pinpoint specific sites or categories you don’t want to associate with your brand. For example, YouTube advertisers can opt out of up to 5 categories, including hot-button social issues, tragedies, profanity, sexually suggestive content, and “sensational and shocking” videos.
- Respond quickly to any ad complaints from customers and ad-advocacy groups, and follow up to let them know how you’ve resolved their complaints. Thoughtful, timely responses can mitigate the damage to your company’s reputation.
- Immediately report any consumer complaints about your ads to your ad network and have your ads blocked from sites your customers have complained about.
- Consider using an ad auditing service to evaluate the quality of impressions your ads earn on the networks you participate in. Startups like DoubleVerify offer audits across multiple ad networks.
With digital advertising, the positive still outweighs the negative for brands
Ultimately, you shouldn’t let the prospect of misplaced ads discourage you from using digital advertising to promote your business.
In most cases, digital ads appear where they’re supposed to, and the tools that ad networks use to screen sites are increasingly effective. The problem of inappropriate content will probably never go away entirely, but ad networks know their business model depends on helping advertisers protect their brands.
As a consumer, remember that brands care most about giving you what you want. If you don’t want ads of brands you love to appear on sites you hate, the fix could be as simple as not visiting those sites.
HostGator joined our sister company Constant Contact in removing our ads from sites like Breitbart. If you see us our ads on those sites, it is likely a result of retargeting, although we encourage you to let us know in the comments below or by contacting our support team.
Casey Kelly-Barton is an Austin-based freelancer who enjoys writing about business development and marketing, e-commerce payments and fraud prevention, and travel.