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To thrive without cookies, brands must adopt more nuanced blocking techniques

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As featured on ClickZ

In response to the recent announcements by Google and Apple that they are blocking tracking capabilities on their browsers, a slew of companies and advertising organizations recently announced “Partnership for Responsible, Addressable Media,” with the goal of creating common standards that uphold advertiser capabilities.

The scope of the partnership includes the admirable assertion that “consumers should have access to diverse and competitive content offerings, supported by their choices to engage with digital advertising in exchange for content and services.”

While advertisers are right to advocate for diverse and competitive content offerings, the current blanket approach brands take to blocking content, in an attempt to avoid brand risk, directly counteracts this goal. 

Our own research shows that a large number of brands block a quite exhaustive list of terms with common words like “black” and “gay” often making the list. And in April, many publishers began to speak out as brands started blocking the terms “coronavirus” and then, “George Floyd.”

These current common blocking tactics actively discriminate against diverse content and harm quality news outlets. In order to remedy this issue, the way advertisers approach the creation of these lists needs to fundamentally change.

IAS has recently changed their terms “black list” and “white list” to “inclusion” and “exclusion,” which is a good start, but whatever they are called, broad-based “exclusion” lists cause brands to miss many opportunities to connect with diverse audiences on quality content. And it will only continue to get worse.

Not only are advertisers under increased scrutiny for these tactics, they are facing a seismic shift in ad targeting as Apple and Google plan to limit audience targeting. Digital advertising will require a more nuanced methodology for reaching more of the right audiences on more diverse content.

 

Accidental discrimination is still discrimination

According to the HRC, 91% of Fortune 500 companies (prior to the historic Supreme Court decision) had already prohibited discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Yet, last year, a report showed that LGBTQ publishers had difficulty monetizing nearly 75% of their content because words such as “same sex marriage,” were on advertising block lists by these same companies.

While this is clearly a discriminatory practice that needs to be corrected, it’s also a wake up call for brands that have been using blanket blocking techniques out of broad-based risk aversion.

Not only do block lists end up discriminating against publishers that develop content for diverse audiences, they prevent brands from reaching a large section of their own customer base on the quality sites they prefer, be it news or lifestyle content.

A CMO at a major retailer noted that they actively target their advertising towards positive and uplifting content. They seek out content that makes people feel good.

With this approach, the brand is often featured on TV programs and sites that are diverse and inclusive which works well for the retailer because their audience includes nearly 100% of the country’s population.

Other brands should take note, rather than focusing only on what to block, brands should take a more proactive stance, determining instead what content they do want to be next to, regardless of blanket block list keywords.

 

Creating more nuance

Proactively targeting good content is only half the story, though. While it’s easy to side with publishers when good content gets blocked, as always, the problem is a lot more complex.

Brands have noted that their plan is informed by data that warns against hard news and divisive content to preserve their brand reputation.

And worse, if they do advertise against, say, a Black Lives Matter article with a creative for “50% off fall fashions,” they come across as callous and self-serving. So, many brands feel that it’s a lose-lose that’s not worth the extra work.

When cookies go away, they’ll need a way to determine how to find their audiences when they can no longer simply target their behaviors. Brands should work with publishers now to create a much richer set of contextual signals to target against.

YouTube offers a great example. The site has millions of data points that can be used for highly accurate contextual targeting.

They make available the metadata, audio transcripts and comments for every video. Brands can essentially recreate audience targeting using this data – not with block lists, but with proactive contextual targeting.

Publishers have not put much focus on surfacing similar data for their own site, mainly because the open web currency is cookie-based audience targeting.

But with much more granular contextual data, they could escape the block list sledgehammer.

Brands would have options to determine if a coronavirus or Black Lives Matter article is purposefully inflammatory and worth avoiding, or if it’s in fact a story that’s informative or even uplifting – and thereby target effectively.

This is an urgent issue, not only for the clear discriminatory practices that our industry is perpetuating but for what the future of audience targeting holds when cookies cease to exist.

A recent study by Ascend2 shows that 73% of marketers feel that audience targeting is the most effective tactic compared to only 26% for contextual targeting.

Audience targeting works on walled garden sites, which is what quality publishers are competing against.

Will publishers wait until cookies are gone before they realize that they need to create a targeting alternative that can achieve something similar? More nuanced contextual targeting is certainly one important option to consider.

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Michael Shaughnessy

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