Vice Media And WebMD Among Publishers Calling For Transparency Into Blocklists

Frustration with blanket brand safety and suitability solutions is boiling over, leading some publishers to call for marketers to block the blocklist and throw away the keywords.

That frustration was on display during a brand safety and contextual targeting panel at AdMonsters’ Ops 2022 conference in New York City on Monday.

Vice Media and WebMD content includes controversial topics like sex and drugs. Although the ways WebMD and Vice Media cover sex and drugs may be different, highly engaged audiences visit their sites in order to read stories on these topics, and these stories are frequently blocked from ad campaigns.

But how controversial is this content, really? The panel’s moderator, Mike Richter of Trusted Media Brands, asked the audience to raise their hands if they’ve ever read an article about sex or drugs, and nearly everyone in the room indicated they had.

Vice’s readers seek out this “controversial” content, said Vice Media Senior Global Director of Audience Insights Ryan Simone. Brand safety leaves impressions on the table and demonetizes perfectly good content, he said.

Dynamic brand safety solutions like Oracle Grapeshot can easily identify adult content and activate brand safety audiences around it, making static blocklists that misinterpret contextual nuances unnecessary, Simone added.

Although WebMD publishes content related to health and medicine, some of its content, like stories about breast cancer or erectile dysfunction, can be flagged as porn because of keyword blocking, said WebMD VP of Programmatic and Media Technology Cheryl Ng. Because its content gets miscategorized so frequently, WebMD has a media quality team that works with advertisers to minimize impressions lost to automated blocklist solutions.

Advertisers looking to weed out violent or distressing content or coverage that could be construed as political have also blocked Vice’s coverage of the war in Ukraine or WebMD’s articles relating to the COVID-19 pandemic. Advertisers should proactively support this kind of journalism, rather than shying away from it, Ng and Simone said.

The audience was polled on whether the IAB should add a feature to OpenRTB that lets publishers see if their content is being blocked. A majority of the crowd supported this idea.

More transparency between the sell side and the buy side about what content is being blocked from campaigns and whether it should be blocked would be helpful, agreed Crossmedia USA Managing Director of Digital Activation Prerna Talreja, the sole panelist from the buy side. Technology solutions for reporting blocked content and facilitating communication about the context of blocked content are not sufficiently developed, she said.

Since technology solutions to share what content is being blocked don’t exist yet, old-fashioned partnership is the best bet. Instead of automated solutions, Vice Media’s Simone advocated for long-term partnerships between advertisers and publishers so both sides can better understand the audiences they’re trying to reach and the messages that will resonate best.

Contextual targeting, which a publisher can offer an advertiser directly, mixed with a strong first-party data strategy is the best way forward, WebMD’s Ng added.

Aligning first-party data with context can make creative more representative and tailored to publisher content, Talreja said. But there are still contextual blind spots in some channels, like CTV, she added.

In order to truly drive innovation in contextual targeting, “the cookie needs to actually go away,” Ng said.

Chalk that up as another reason to watch the clock on cookie deprecation.

This article was updated to clarify a statement Ryan Simone made about Oracle Grapeshot and its incompatibility with blocklists.

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