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Why Smart Suitability is the Next Phase in YouTube and CTV Promotion


“On TV & Video” is a column examining opportunities and challenges in advanced television and video.

Today’s column is by David George, CEO of Pixability.

Traditional television is losing customers and advertisers to connected TV (CTV) and digital video, and big brands are asking questions about how to target their ads with content that matches their values. This concept of branding isn’t new, but new approaches have not been fully embraced by advertisers – and their inaction leads to a waste of money.

When the concept of brand fitness was first introduced, it was misunderstood by many as just another term for brand safety. Advertisers would defend themselves by blocking keywords that might be inappropriate or other blunt approaches like avoiding news coverage. But while blocking common (and potentially obnoxious) words like “gunshot” or “politics” is intuitive, it means advertisers are potentially missing out on millions of impressions that marketers don’t want to avoid.

The most recent change is to see branding as a proactive way of finding high performing content rather than a defensive measure. According to a recent survey of 177 media agencies, 37% or more of YouTube impressions would deviate from target if branding measures were not taken to avoid inappropriate or non-working content. To understand how moving to a more proactive approach will better maximize impressions, consider how YouTube and other leading CTV companies have fared over the past six years.

Phase 1 (2015-2018): Safe or Unsafe

Brand safety when streaming video became an issue around 2015 when major brands started seeing screenshots of their ads alongside violent, daring, or politically charged videos. Marketers have a lot of leeway in controlling campaigns without C-suite oversight, but a sudden brand safety controversy will immediately grab the CEO’s attention. From 2015 to 2018, advertisers mainly focused on countermeasures to avoid dangerous content, blocking wholesale categories and keywords.

This defensive approach sometimes saved the brand from poor visibility, but it diverted attention from the actual campaign performance. Agencies considered a campaign to be successful when the brand’s reputation was not harmed. They rarely looked closely to see if the brand-safe content they selected was relevant and performed well.

Phase 2 (2018-2020): Brand suitability through context

Around 2018, brands and agencies began to move away from a single focus on security. Instead, they pushed for “appropriate” content for their brand. At this point, many third-party YouTube partners were using contextual targeting to ensure brand suitability.

The suitability strategy had a partially positive effect on the results, but led to a narrow definition of suitability. For example, a car advertiser might only focus on automotive content or a few other closely related categories. However, any advertiser who restricts themselves to a few categories will be working with a splitter of YouTube content. Scaled campaigns and target group reach cannot be enforced through a keyhole of the suitability assessment.

Each month, there is likely to be the highest concentration of Auto-Intendant viewing content in unrelated or even unexpected categories. A 2021 study of car campaigns in collaboration with the Global Alliance for Responsible Media (GARM) found that YouTube car advertisers were most successful at targeting healthy lifestyles, pop culture, news and politics, music, or food and drink channels. It is clear that there are opportunity costs for advertisers when the narrow contextual view of suitability is taken.

Phase 3 (from 2021): Smart suitability

Aptitude trends have evolved beyond pure context targeting. First, GARM created a new suitability definition by assigning a risk assessment category to each content. As a result, advertisers can select content across categories based on suitability and risk tolerance, rather than targeting suitability whitelists or broad blocks of keywords.

For example, the Beastie Boys music video “Sabotage” was previously considered unsafe by all advertisers. But GARM’s suitability approach categorizes it as “medium risk”. And marketers have more discretion to block what actually seems out of place for their brand.

Advertisers also improve campaign performance by finding value in unobvious categories or channels. This means more scalability and ad prices can go down if you don’t bid against direct competitors and artificially high demand for certain impressions.

The next step some marketers take is to realize the power of their spending – and they vote with their advertising money. They can use their investments on creators or causes that matter to them, whether it’s supporting LGBTQ or black creator content, or avoiding content that may be associated with political views they don’t support.

As brands explore new branding opportunities on YouTube and CTV, you can expect the approaches to get more interesting. The new proactive strategies suggest that branding tools could become a competitive differentiator for brands and marketers. When advertisers refine their approaches and “go on the offensive,” they can maintain security and improve performance and support content that is important to you on all CTV platforms.


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