For the past few months, we’ve been hearing a pattern emerge from marketers: a shift away from buying ads in front of user-generated content (UGC) and towards spending brand advertising dollars to be in and around professional content.
We’ve been hearing a version of:
“Our particular brand doesn’t need to advertise around user-generated content. We can still reach all of our customers by advertising around professional content.”
The underlying concern: user-generated content (UGC) can sometimes promote hate speech, racism, sexism or terrorism — and brand managers don’t want to risk being seen as aligning with, or worse, funding (!!) that content. As we’ve seen lately, this issue has come to a head with 250 brands pulling the plug on YouTube ads in the last few weeks.
A New York Times piece last week detailed how JP Morgan Chase cut back the number of sites it was advertising on from 400,000 to just 5,000, cutting out all UGC without sacrificing frequency, efficiency, or reach.
Just because marketers can find an audience down the back alleys of the web doesn’t mean they should.
“What are we including as user generated content here?”
UGC takes a variety of forms. The two most relevant for brands on the modern web are:
User-generated videos (with ads that run before YouTube videos, during Snapchat stories, etc.)
Forums and personal sites/pages (with ads that run on those pages, powered by Google and a number of other legacy ad tech companies). In the context of a marketer, this would not include professionally-created niche content, like a celebrity’s personal site or niche content sites (e.g. ThePointsGuy).
The common thread here is that in both cases, these are everyday people creating content, without editorial oversight and often without regard for whether a brand advertiser would want to be perceived as “funding” the content.
User-generated content is what makes the internet a great place — and what sometimes makes the internet a scary place. It’s the long-tail blog set up by anybody with an opinion; it’s the YouTube channel started by anyone around the world with a laptop; it’s the Snapchat story created by anyone with a phone. UGC is important to promote the free flow of information and to promote a global dialogue, but advertising within and around UGC also creates enormous risk for most brand marketers.
Ten years ago, brands never advertised next to user generated content: no one was running pre-roll ads before YouTube clips or paying for banner ads in the corners of the millions of sites that monetize using Google and other legacy ad tech. The guy on the corner with the megaphone has a right to free speech, but now, brands are realizing that they are unwittingly paying to sponsor his message. The First Amendment protects people’s right to speak their thoughts, but it doesn’t grant them a right to profit from them.
That said, advertising next to UGC can still be a good idea in a limited set of circumstances:
- A brand with a tiny, niche pool of customers — they need to reach those few users wherever they can find them.
- A brand with extreme efficiency goals — they need to cut costs by advertising on UGC rather than professional content.
- A brand with an extreme POV or a counter-culture message — these brands actively want to promote their message while users are reading/watching questionable content (I’m being a bit tongue-in-cheek here).
“But if I stop advertising on UGC, how do I reach all of my customers and prospects?”
Smart marketers are still reaching 99% of their addressable customers by advertising only in and around professional content. How?
1. Partner with companies that only work with professional content sites
Using Sharethrough as an example, since I have an inside view into the numbers — we’re the enterprise software that major media companies and magazine/newspaper/digital publishers use to manage the native advertising on their sites and apps.
In total, approximately 300 publishers use our technology to power approximately 1200 sites. But despite a list limited to only professional content sites, Comscore still reports that our platform reaches 87% of people on the internet in North America. As our company continues to expand and as the prevalence of native ads grows, that number will soon be 99%.
2. Use 3rd party UGC filtering
For marketers that want to avoid UGC when buying programmatically, either handpick a list of a few thousand sites, like JP Morgan Chase has done, or use a 3rd party filtering service like Peer39 to exclude ads from running on UGC sites.
3. Opt into the Google Preferred program
For video advertisers looking to make a return to YouTube, know that YouTube has its Google Preferred program, allowing marketers to target only professional content, excluding UGC.
4. Exclude UGC within your DSP
For video advertisers buying programmatically, some DSP’s now have targeting options to specifically exclude running ads in front of UGC videos. The Trade Desk, for example, enables this with a clear binary option on the targeting screen.
“Is the issue really UGC, or is it more broadly just about being near objectionable content?”
The issue for a brand isn't just being near objectionable content. That was never advertising’s guarantee. Most full page ads in The New York Times are sandwiched between stories of global crises, political dissent, local crime and so on. An ad on The Wall Street Journal’s homepage will likely appear on a page that has much of the same. That’s not the issue.
The issue is that on NYT and WSJ, the user never thinks that the advertiser is funding or endorsing the companies, politicians and criminals each article is about. But when that advertiser places its ads in front of user-generated content that espouses hate speech, racism, sexism, terrorism, then the advertiser is directly funding the creator of that content — and risks being seen as supporting its message.
A return to enterprise publishers and professional content.
In recent years, media companies and publishers have had trouble from all sides: declining TV and newspaper/magazine consumption, an existential dependence on Facebook for traffic, the explosion of fake news, the ongoing threat of ad blocking, the shift to mobile, and users who demand more integrated, less disruptive ad experiences. It’s been a tough time.
But from my personal experiences with the largest media companies and enterprise publishers, I see a lot to be optimistic about. Professional content is as important to the web as UGC. Professional content elevates the experience of using Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. And brands have realized that advertising within and around professional content drives advertising performance.
When a brand sticks to advertising in and around professional content, they can rest assured that their ad dollars are going toward funding journalism.