YouTube, the world’s largest video-sharing platform, has over one billion users. Launched in 2005, the site was created for users to share self-made content, a factor which has contributed heavily to its popularity. In a move towards profitability, YouTube added ads in 2008. Brands among the likes of Expedia, Nike, and Verizon now pay to place ads before, during, and after videos, reaching millions of consumers. In turn, YouTube profits and its creators have a chance to make a living.
However, the user-generated content that populates YouTube isn’t always without flaws. In recent years, brands have been shocked to see their ads run alongside videos that range from controversial to extremist.
A recent survey of 104 marketing experts revealed that 78% are more concerned about brand safety now than 12 months ago. Evidently, brand safety on YouTube is an increasingly important issue. Here we’ll examine how YouTube ad placement works, discuss its complicated history, and offer steps advertisers can follow to manage their reputation on the platform.
YouTube monetizes its platform by selling advertising space to brands. Especially among younger audiences, YouTube’s reach is beginning to rival that of traditional television, making YouTube ads incredibly valuable. An online survey of internet users aged 13-24 found that 67% described YouTube as a “must have” service. Meanwhile, only 36% consider cable television a necessity.
While YouTube advertisements reach broad audiences, they also come with significant risks. YouTube advertising differs from television advertising in that marketers can’t completely control the context in which their advertisements appear. Because YouTube content is almost entirely user-generated, brands have almost no say in what material YouTube pairs their ads with.
Instead, marketers are limited to choosing a targeted demographic and an advertising format. While this ability helps brands reach specific audiences based on interests, location and more, brands can’t completely control the videos their advertisements appear alongside. Algorithms, not marketing experts, determine which advertisements appear with which videos.
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YouTube has a long history of controversy surrounding videos and advertisements. Here, we outline the major events that have drawn attention to YouTube brand safety.
February 2017: Over 250 brands pulled their ads from YouTube after discovering that they were being aired alongside videos containing extremist messages and/or hate speech. Included in this boycott were multi-billion dollar brands like Johnson & Johnson, McDonald’s, Toyota, AT&T, and Verizon. Prior to its ad freeze, Johnson & Johnson had been spending a significant proportion of its $2.4 billion advertising budget on digital video.
March 2017: YouTube updated its monetization algorithm and implemented stricter monetization guidelines. In its announcement of the updated policies, the platform emphasized its commitment to ensuring that advertisements only appear alongside advertiser-friendly videos.
November 2017: Another group of major brands, this time including Cadbury, Deutsche Bank, Adidas, and Mars pulled their ads from YouTube after seeing that there was controversial content in the comments sections of the videos their ads appeared in conjunction with.
December 2017: YouTube announced the hiring of additional employees to screen videos for extremist content and remove videos that violate the company’s policies. At the time of the announcement, it pledged to increase the total number of employees dedicated to monitoring content to 10,000 by 2018.
December 2017: Logan Paul, one of the world’s largest YouTube influencers, published controversial footage to his YouTube channel that resulted in his suspension from the platform.
January 2018: In the wake of the Logan Paul controversy, YouTube changed its Adsense qualifications. A channel now needs 4,000 hours of watch time in the last 12 months and 1,000 subscribers in order to monetize. The company stated that the higher standards were intended to prevent potentially inappropriate videos from monetizing.
March 2018: Despite YouTube’s policy changes, more brands — including Nike and Expedia — learned that their ads were playing alongside offensive content. The ads aired before a clip of conspiracy theorist disseminating false information, including that the 2012 school shooting in Sandy Hook was a hoax.
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If a brand refrains from using YouTube ads it avoids the potential backlash of appearing in the context of controversial content but misses out on reaching millions of potential customers. Below are a few steps brands can take to protect their reputation on YouTube if they do opt to use YouTube ad placements.
1. Listen to what’s being said about your brand online.
In the past, numerous brands haven’t been aware of their ads’ appearance beside controversial content until notified by the press. In an effort to alleviate ad placement issues expediently, brands should pay close attention to the dialogue surrounding their name online—in the press, on social media, and on their website.
2. Act quickly if your ads appear beside problematic content.
In the event that a brand’s ads appear in the context of controversial content, marketers should act immediately to mitigate backlash. For example, when Verizon discovered it was the victim of negative ad placement in March 2017, the brand quickly pulled its ads and launched an investigation.
3. Utilize the brand safety tools YouTube offers.
In the context of its ad placement program, YouTube does offer certain safeguards. Perhaps most prominently, advertisers can exclude specific accounts from ad placement campaigns. Brands should take advantage of this tool and remove any potential bad actors from campaigns.
Though YouTube’s ad placement service offers significant advantages, it lacks the control of other forms of advertising. Regardless of how hyperactive brands are in monitoring brand safety on YouTube, they can never totally control ad placement on the platform.
A potential alternative to YouTube ad placement is influencer marketing. The strategy still allows brands to market to YouTube’s one billion users but offers significantly more control over where branded content appears.
Unlike ad placement, brands can hand-select the YouTube influencers they’d like to collaborate with and approve the sponsored content an influencer creates before it’s published. Because of this, the risk of having ads run alongside inappropriate content is almost entirely eliminated.
Partnering with a well-established influencer marketing agency that has years of experience selecting influencers and monitoring sponsored content can further mitigate the risks of advertising on YouTube.
In addition to being a lower risk option, influencer marketing is extremely effective in altering consumer behavior. 62% of 18-24-year-olds report that they would buy a YouTuber endorsed product over one endorsed by a celebrity, illustrating the high level of trust YouTube influencers establishes with their audiences. As YouTube continues to grow, influencer marketing presents an excellent, low-risk vehicle for capitalizing on the platform’s advertising potential.