Why Smart Suitability Is The Next Phase In YouTube And CTV Advertising

David George, CEO, Pixability

"On TV & Video" is a column exploring opportunities and challenges in advanced TV and video. 

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

Traditional TV is losing customers and advertisers to connected TV (CTV) and digital video, and large brands are asking questions about how they should align their ads with content that matches their values. This concept of brand suitability isn’t new, but new ways to approach it haven’t been fully embraced by advertisers – and their inaction results in wasted money.

When the concept of brand suitability was introduced, many misunderstood it as another term for brand safety. Advertisers would play defense by keyword-blocking content that might be inappropriate, or other blunt instrument approaches like avoiding news stories. But while blocking common (and potentially offensive) words like “shot” or “politics” are intuitive, it means advertisers miss potentially millions of impressions that the marketers wouldn’t want to avoid.

The recent shift is to view brand suitability not as a defensive measure but a proactive way to find high-performance content. According to a recent survey of 177 media agencies, respondents said 37% or more of YouTube impressions would be off target if brand suitability measures were not taken to avoid unsuitable or non-performing content. To understand how the shift to a more proactive approach will better maximize impressions, consider how YouTube and other CTV leaders have evolved over the last six years.

Phase 1 (2015-2018): Safe or unsafe

Brand safety for streaming video became an issue around 2015, when major brands started seeing their ads screenshot alongside violent, risqué or politically charged videos. Marketers have wide latitude to control campaigns without C-suite oversight, but a sudden brand safety controversy will draw immediate attention from the CEO. From 2015 to 2018, advertisers primarily focused on defensive measures to avoid dangerous content, blocking wholesale categories and keywords.

This defensive approach sometimes preserved the brand from bad exposure, but it took the attention away from the actual campaign performance. Agencies considered a campaign successful if no damage was done to brand reputation. They rarely looked deeper to see whether the brand-safe content they selected was relevant and performed well.

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

Brands and agencies began moving away from a singular focus on safety around 2018. Instead, they pushed for “suitable” content for their brand. At this point, many third-party YouTube partners deployed contextual targeting for brand suitability.

The suitability strategy sometimes had a positive effect on results, but led to a narrow definition of suitability. For example, an auto advertiser may focus on automobile content only, or a few other closely related categories. However, any advertiser that limits itself to a few categories will be working with a sliver of YouTube content. Scaled campaigns and audience reach can’t be forced through a keyhole of suitability scoring.

In any given month, the highest concentration of auto intenders are likely watching content in unrelated or even unexpected categories. A 2021 study of auto campaigns, in collaboration with the Global Alliance for Responsible Media (GARM), revealed YouTube auto advertisers were most successful targeting healthy living, pop culture, news and politics, music or food and drink channels. Clearly, there’s an opportunity cost for advertisers in taking the narrow contextual view of suitability.

Phase 3 (2021 onward): Smart suitability

Suitability trends have evolved beyond just contextual targeting. First, GARM established a new definition for suitability by assigning a risk score category to each piece of content. As a result, advertisers can select content across categories based on suitability and risk tolerance, rather than targeting by suitability whitelists or broad keyword blocks.

For example, the Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage” music video previously would be deemed unsafe across all advertisers. But GARM’s suitability approach categorizes it “Medium Risk.” And marketers have more discretion to block what actually seems off for their brand.

Advertisers also improve campaign performance by finding value in non-obvious categories or channels. It means more scale, and ad rates can go down when you aren’t bidding against direct competitors and artificially high demand for certain impressions.

The next step some marketers are taking is to recognize the power their spend can have — and they are voting with their ad dollars. They can earmark their investments for creators or causes they care about, whether that’s supporting content from LGBTQ or Black creators or avoiding content that may be associated with political views they don’t support.

As brands explore new possibilities for brand suitability on YouTube and CTV, expect approaches to get more interesting. The new proactive strategies indicate that brand suitability tools could become a competitive differentiator for brands and marketers. As advertisers refine their approaches and “go on the offensive,” they will be able to maintain safety, increase performance and support content they care about across every CTV platform.

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