Should Media Buyers Resist the Whitelist?  

Brands are taking an increasingly tough stance on the quality of digital ad inventory, leading them to employ a variety of tactics and techniques to guarantee the value of the websites on which they advertise, writes Andy Evans, CMO at Sovrn, exclusively for ExchangeWire.

Whitelisting – where advertisers only buy inventory from a list of pre-approved websites – is one such tactic. In fact, a World Federation of Advertisers survey revealed almost half (49%) of top-spending global brands have adopted site whitelists or blacklists over the last year.

While this uptake is understandable, given concerns over quality issues such as brand safety, ad fraud, and viewability, there are a couple of drawbacks to whitelisting advertisers may not have considered. So why should media buyers think twice about whitelisting?

The best website you’ve never heard of

By limiting their media buys to a specific list of websites, advertisers are inevitably restricting their reach and frequency opportunities and may be missing out on highly valuable placements on sites they simply are not aware of. The internet is home to a wealth of mid- to long-tail publisher websites that contain original, high-quality content, produced by experts in their field, and that are brand-safe, as well as fraud-free. Audiences for these niche sites may not be as large as more general sites, but they are highly engaged and often affluent. As an example, a site like Teslarati.com is placed in the top 9,000 sites in the US, according to its Alexa ranking, and top 30,000 globally and commands a well-educated, affluent male audience interested in reading more about a pretty expensive investment.

If buyers aren’t aware of these niche websites, they won’t appear on their whitelist, and brands will miss the unique opportunities they provide. To illustrate this, consider the filter bubble effect on social media, where platforms keep on feeding consumers with the same type of content over and over again because they’ve previously shown an interest in it. This precludes the possibility of discovering something new, something exciting, and something that is different, ultimately killing serendipity. By restricting media buys to the sites on a pre-approved whitelist, advertisers could miss high-value placements on the best websites they’ve never heard of.

On occasion when a whitelist is preferable or insisted on, buyers must ensure these are reviewed and updated regularly, and that they are engaged in regular conversations with sellers who have access to large and varied inventory sets, to ensure they are not missing out. By improving communication between the buy and sell sides, new opportunities to reach highly engaged audiences can be identified and advertisers can avoid getting caught in the filter bubble.

Quality inventory isn’t always what you think it is

Algorithmic buying uses a version of whitelisting, where ad placements are only bought when they meet certain predefined criteria. But definitions of a valuable ad placement vary greatly, and algorithms are often working to a skewed view of what makes inventory worth buying.

Imagine, for instance, an ad placed well below the fold at the very bottom of a webpage, that only achieves 15% viewability on a site with relatively low visitor numbers. Algorithmic buying will steer clear of this placement, seeing it as the wrong position on the wrong page of the wrong website.

Now consider that the same page contains a detailed review of the latest Lamborghini, written by a passionate car lover who has recently taken the model for a test drive. Some visitors will read the headline, possibly even the first paragraph, but may then leave the page in search of something else. These aren’t engaged consumers. Visitors who read the entire review, right to the end, are the ones who are really engaged, and the ones advertisers should want to talk to. An ad at the bottom of this page might only be seen by 15% of visitors, but that’s the portion advertisers need to reach – the ones who really want to buy that Lamborghini.

It might sound counterintuitive, but the ad at the bottom of a page is always more valuable than the one at the top, with higher click-through and conversion rates, when viewability percentages are taken into account. When a visitor lands on a webpage they don’t want to be instantly bombarded by intrusive advertising, they want to check out the content. But, by the time a visitor has reached the bottom of the page, they are not only fully engaged with the article they have read, they are also ready to move on to related content.

The likes of Google and other cpc-based text link businesses understand this and have placed link-based ads at the bottom of the page for years, because they know that is where consumers click. Editorial teams understand this and place their related story links at the bottom of the page so readers who finish one article have another to turn to. If a pertinent ad is placed at the bottom of the page, and looks appealing and trustworthy, it might be the most relevant content for the visitor to click on once they reach the end of the page. To make the most of these types of opportunities, advertisers need to look beyond the placement quality definitions used by algorithmic buying, until the market fully adopts proactive delivery of ads that only load in-view.

Placement quality beyond whitelisting

Advertisers may feel more assured buying inventory against a whitelist because they see those websites as brand-safe, viewable, and free from ad fraud; but there are many other ways to achieve the same level of certainty.

From the AOP’s Ad Quality Charter launched this month, and the IAB’s Gold Standard, to the TAG certifications, and the Pixalate Global Seller Trust Index, there is now a wide spectrum of industry standards and accountability programmes, as well as tools and techniques that can be used to fight ad fraud, maintain brand safety, and ensure viewability. If advertisers only work with vendors and exchange partners committed to these industry initiatives and upholding these standards, they can enjoy far more confidence in the quality of the placements they are buying and can relax their approach to whitelisting. By looking for partners who rigorously vet publisher inventory, advertisers can be sure of quality without limiting their access to high-value placements.

Whitelists may appear to be a safe choice for advertisers, but they can restrict access to valuable placements and engaged audiences. By focusing instead on partnering with vendors and exchanges committed to quality initiatives, and that adhere to stringent industry standards, buyers can ensure their ads are served in the right place, at the right time, and reach the right people.

As Dan Larden, global strategic partnerships director, Infectious Media said: “Once you can trust your partners to be transparent throughout the process, overly restrictive, named publisher whitelisting shouldn’t even be a consideration of your programmatic ad strategy.”

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