It’s 10 p.m. Do You Know Where Your Brand Is?

When they purchase media, brand marketers operate under a double standard that many aren’t even aware of. They eschew graphical ad networks in favor of text-based contextual, behavioral, profile-driven, and search-based ad networks, because they fear unsavory environments. But this fear is unfounded. While campaign decisions aren’t likely to change soon, as marketers we owe it to ourselves to step back occasionally and evaluate the reasons we do things in a particular way. Tradition alone doesn’t always hold up to scrutiny.

Paranoia Runs Deep

Brand marketers fear their advertising will show up in a bad neighborhood, on a site espousing a point of view that doesn’t fit within the mainstream or contradicts the brand’s image. This fear drives marketers to be wary of ad networks made up of sites that are difficult to police or sites that rely on user-generated content (UGC) instead of editorially reviewed content. Agencies may actually encourage some of this paranoia because the sites that are nearly universally accepted by brands as OK to advertise on charge higher CPMs (define) for their brand-friendly premium status. Agencies like to deal with these sites because they can buy simpler campaigns and spend more money to reach the same impression goals. Because agencies are compensated as a percentage of spend, the incentive is there.

In many cases, a brand manager’s paranoia about graphical ad placement is unfounded, and perhaps even irrational. But brand marketers and their legal departments have been trained to be paranoid about ad placements, particularly when the brand logo appears in proximity to content that could be deemed objectionable or otherwise able to tarnish the brand. This paranoia originated in the broadcast and print media but has gained steam in the online arena, often without a well-thought-out justification. The brand manager, marketing VP, CMO, and possibly the legal department’s paranoia level ranges from moderate to “needs psychological help.” What are they paranoid about?

Some highly regulated industries, such as financial services (insurance, brokerage, banking), pharmaceutical, and alcoholic beverages, have legal or regulatory reasons driving their ad-placement paranoia. One could spend days talking about some of the asinine guidelines they must abide by, all designed to protect consumers from being mislead. But most brands can’t blame their paranoia on a regulatory or governing agency.

Brand marketers consider any occurrence of their brand’s ad and logo appearing proximal to some objectionable, questionable, or irrelevant content to be unacceptable. This need for control stops many brands from taking advantage of graphical ad networks, even though the prices offered at many of these ad networks are enticing.

Clean vs. Dirty SERPs

Enter the search engines. Initially, the text links purchased through the engines (originally GoTo/Overture and Google) only showed up in the SERPs (define). Few brand managers or agencies really thought about the possibility that a link would show up in an objectionable SERP. However, with broad match one can create some creative and potentially objectionable SERPs, driven by a searcher combining a brand name with a dirty word. This isn’t likely to happen, but it illustrates a point about “clean” versus “dirty” SERPs. Because many brand marketers buy their brands terms using broad match, their ads show up with any permutation of their brand and a word that might be disparaging. Consequently, their ads may be the only positive result on the entire SERP.

Brands set up to display broad match results in one or more engines include E-loan, Orbitz, J.C. Penney, Sears, Dell, and many others. Run your own tests. I’m not condemning these brands for running broad match on their brand names. In fact, this may be a great strategy to assure visibility and to control the searcher’s destination page, regardless of the query or the organic results. But this example illustrates the fact that a SERP may contain quite a bit of objectionable material driven by the searcher’s actions. Similarly, much of the content on UGC sites is there because visitors seek it out.

A Lower Standard for Textual Ads?

When contextual distribution is enabled (a situation appropriate for marketers interested in influencing early buying behavior), those text links might appear in a myriad of different potentially objectionable locations. Yet many brand marketers overlook this possibility simply because the logo isn’t in the ad. In effect, the textual ad is held to a lower standard.

Perhaps it’s time for those brands that have been running textual ads in questionable real estate for years without the sky falling to loosen some of the standards for graphical media.

An Opportunity for Premium Publishers?

As long as brand marketers and agencies continue to tread lightly within textual and graphical networks because they fear their ads will be found in the wrong neighborhood or on the wrong page, an opportunity exists for premium publishers. These publishers often oversell their inventory at high CPMs; at the same time, they might be OK with traffic-generating ads showing up all over the Web, particularly in relevant UGC sites, where the visitors might be perfect even if the neighborhood isn’t.

If publishers, aided by savvy media buying teams that understand how to segment out the stickiest, highest ROI (define) traffic, decide to buy remnant inventory in riskier neighborhoods, they can pump up their high-yielding pages: the ones advertisers are enamored with. I’ll cover paid search best practices for publishers in a future column.

Meet Kevin at SES Chicago on December 3-6.

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