Ringing in 2024 with Brand Safety

Chris Huebner outlines three ways to make an institution’s media and advertising more brand-safe.

3 minutes
By: Chris Huebner

Over the summer, a Washington Post headline caught the attention of the public and many of us who actively market higher education. Not only was the year-over-year growth a surprise, but the amount spent on digital advertising alone was stark.

As we enter another year — one that’s predicted to see more spent on digital advertising — understanding how to navigate the complexity of environments that have become seamlessly integrated with advertising is critical to effective media buying. One way to manage this spend effectively is to ensure brand-safe media buying. As our digital landscapes evolve, so must our strategies for staying ahead of brand safety.

First, what do we mean when we say brand safety? At its most basic it is the implementation of specific practices and tools/software that enables protection against an ad from appearing in a context or with a publisher that doesn’t align with your brand.

Secondly, we know that context is a key component of impact. It can either strengthen message comprehension or cost signal to audiences when the media environment is perceived as trustworthy or premium. As trust wanes or perceived cost relative to value is questioned, scraping the bottom of the supply side barrel may do more harm than good. Therefore, maintaining our media buys’ quality, relevance and congruency is imperative to creating stronger connections to our audiences. 

Just as we tend to make resolutions around this time, here are three ways to make your next media buy more brand-safe.

1. Take Advantage of Inclusion and Exclusion Lists

Whether you are working with a partner or across your institution, it’s important to consider where your ads are placed. One way to mitigate the websites your ads may appear on is through inclusions and exclusions (often referred to as whitelists/blacklists). 

Both types of lists are created using URLs of websites. Inclusion lists can be built based on advanced audience targeting, media context or consumption and topically. An exclusion list in the context of media buying is a curated list of websites, publishers or topical categories that you have identified as wanting to remove as ad placements.

Advertisers use these lists to prevent ads from showing up on websites with unsuitable, controversial or low-quality content. This is also a good way to decrease placements on made-for-advertising websites. As the name describes, these are sites built specifically to be overrun with ads, alongside questionable content. Think of the headline “Can you believe what this celebrity looks like now?” at the bottom of a news site. These look like great opportunities because of the low cost and traffic, but the likelihood that they capture human eyeballs is very low. 

Although these lists offer a proactive way to approach brand safety, they must be reviewed regularly and updated. Good partners should have a solution in place and automatically review it as part of their management. Remember, the web is always evolving. Active monitoring can help maintain a more brand-safe media buy.

2. Keep Placements In-Platform

If you’ve spent any time building an ad campaign in Meta, LinkedIn or even Google’s Ads, you’ve likely come to the point where you are met with a pre-checked box indicating you’d like to “expand your audience.” This is a way to move beyond the confines of the platform in which you seek to advertise. 

In the case of Meta, the Audience Network allows you to extend your campaign placements beyond their platform and reach audiences on partner mobile apps. In the case of Google, you have the option of including Google Search Partners or the Google Display Network for your display ad buy.

The issue with expanding your audience is that the opportunity is essentially an inevitable “black box.” There’s no telling where ads may be placed nor the ability to affect, leverage or optimize the option. Not only are media buyers hoping these placements are viewable but are showing up in places that aren’t damaging to the brand. 

There is one final pre-checked box to consider. Always select “Presence: People in or regularly in your targeted locations” on Google Ads.

In the case of both Google and Meta, the networks have begun to face scrutiny as researchers and practitioners question the value and compromising position in which advertisers are placed. When in doubt, keep your placements in-platform.

3. Consider Private Marketplaces 

Private marketplaces — commonly referred to as PMPs — are direct buys with premium publishers, often through programmatic partners or buying. This tactic’s strength, as it relates to brand safety, is that the advertiser can buy in a controlled and relevant media environment that’s curated and scalable. 

PMP spending has nearly doubled and, in many ways, can help mitigate the reliance on third-party data. If you are partnering with a programmatic partner or buying internally through self-serve, it’s worth exploring your options. Even if, you simply ensure that tactically you are taking advantage of PMPs.

In a category where consumer trust is paramount, implementing brand safety measures is critical. We can achieve scale and reach in unprecedented ways, but it has only opened the door for the need to be proactive when it comes to ensuring your institution is showing in the places and spaces that add value.

Chris Huebner

Chris Huebner


Christopher Huebner is the director of activation at SimpsonScarborough. He has worked both agency- and client-side, where he has planned and executed marketing and recruitment strategies across multiple program types and institutions. His work has been published in the Journal of Education Advancement & Marketing, the Journal of Digital and Social Media and the Journal of Brand Strategy.

Newsletter Sign up!

Stay current in digital strategy, brand amplification, design thinking and more.

Also in Marketing