Ensuring that ads are running adjacent to quality content is an issue of paramount importance to brand advertisers, and for good reason. Brands are tremendously valuable assets. There is no shortage of research available to underscore this point, but among the most compelling recent evidence is Tropicana's experience earlier this year with its ill-fated new package design. There are few more stark examples of the power and value of a brand than observing the impact when it suddenly disappears. Many brand advertisers have invested billions in their brands over time. Given these investments and the value they have generated, brand marketers rightly protect their brands with impressive single-mindedness. As a result, media buyers obsess about quality, and quality becomes an important marketing claim for media sellers.
But what does "quality" really mean?
Before we answer that question, let's briefly clarify some terminology that can create confusion around this issue. Let's start with the word "premium." In the context of online ad inventory, premium is generally used interchangeably with "high quality." This would be fine, except that the opposite of premium is too often referred to as "remnant." Thus if premium = high quality, then remnant = low quality. This is where things get muddy, because this is often untrue. When used correctly, remnant means "available to the spot market after forward commitments have been fulfilled." So the opposite of remnant is not premium. The opposite of remnant is "reserved in advance."
There are really two distinct axes at work here: one describes quality of the inventory, while the other essentially describes the terms or process under which the inventory was purchased. There is some correlation between the two axes, which I believe is at the heart of the persistent confusion. It's a fact that remnant inventory is often of lower average quality than inventory that is reserved in advance. However, due to traffic volatility, forecast errors, sub-optimal pricing, supply/demand imbalances, etc., there is often significant volume of high-quality or premium inventory available in the remnant market. Think five-star hotel rooms on Priceline or upgrading to business class at the gate and you get the idea.
Now that we have that all sorted, let's get down to defining quality
"Quality" in the online media buying context refers generally to the environment in which the ad will appear. For most, this includes the editorial standard and aesthetic sensibility of the content surrounding the ad, as well as the position of the ad on the page. For some, quality can even encompass more abstract notions like consumer engagement with the content or positive association between the media brand and the brand being advertised. Not surprisingly, there is a good deal of subjectivity involved in assessments of quality. However, there are some objective standards for quality on which the vast majority of brand media buyers agree. Specifically, high-quality placements are (at least) above the fold on pages that are completely free of objectionable content (profanity, pornography, hate speech, etc.).
Interestingly, both of these criteria only have meaning for an individual page, while the vast majority of the discussion about quality is in the context of sites or site lists. This example from a random ad network website is typical:
"We acquire our advertising inventory through direct relationships with leading publishers that we have evaluated and chosen for inclusion in our network. [we do] not purchase inventory from ad exchanges, other ad networks, social networking, or user-generated content sites. This model protects our clients... and ensures brand safety for marketers."
This sounds good at a superficial level, until one considers that publishers are increasingly focused on building community by intermingling UGC with professional editorial on the same page (typically in the forms of user comments). Immediately adjacent to a professional article on a great-looking page, could be a profane, inarticulate rant from an anonymous user. This intermingling of UGC with professional edit is not an anomaly. It is ubiquitous. Even leading branded publishers -- publishers that any brand buyer would buy from directly without a second thought -- have this issue.
Do an experiment. Go to your favorite high-quality publisher and search for your favorite dirty word. Odds are, you'll find it, and if you re-load the page a few times, you'll find it next to an ad from a top brand. This brand may have purchased inventory from a carefully selected, high-quality publisher, but still this particular ad was placed on a low-quality, brand-damaging page. It doesn't matter whether this inventory was purchased directly or through an exchange -- the page content doesn't change. It doesn't matter if this site generates professional editorial or it's a UGC site -- that distinction is increasingly meaningless. It doesn't even matter if this page was o.k. 12 hours ago or will be 12 hours from now -- user comments can come and go quickly. The only thing that matters is on which page the ad is running and exactly what content is on that page right now -- a problem that only technology can solve.
The critical disconnect is that quality is a dynamic, page-level issue, not a static, site-level issue. Anyone who discusses quality purely in terms of careful buying or site selection is ignoring this reality. Ignoring reality never works for long. (If you don't believe me, I have some sub-prime mortgage bonds to sell you.)
A better approach would be to accept the reality and invest in page-level filtering technology, but keep in mind that all technologies are not created equal. Passive solutions that offer after-the-fact campaign verification and reporting on quality incidents may be better than nothing, but active solutions -- ones that keep quality incidents from happening in the first place -- are dramatically more effective in protecting brands from damaging content adjacencies.