Facebook is moving forward with a sensitive brand safety test, which gives advertisers a first line of defense against running ads near hot-button subjects after early trials showed that advertisers could apply the controls without dramatically disturbing the price and reach of ads.
Mondelēz was one of the few brands in the first round of tests applying “topic exclusions” to News Feed ads, according to Jonathan Halvorson, VP of consumer experience at Mondelēz. The brands in the program were able to choose three categories of content to avoid in News Feed, including crime and tragedy, news and politics and social issues. After selecting those filters, the brands theoretically limited their exposure to users who were heavy sharers of posts related to those subjects, which could prevent brands from appearing above or below such content in News Feeds.
The testing period is being used to evaluate what affect the controls have on the reach of the ads when a brand restricts the size of the audience, and also on the price of the ads. Mondelēz saw CPMs—the cost to reach 1,000 views—rise about 15%, while the reach of the ads decreased about 15%. It’s important to note that this was just from the first run with topic exclusions, with limited test subjects. As a result, the ultimate impact of the program could differ and different brands could see varying results. But “from our perspective, it’s a big success,” Halvorson says.
“It’s favorable in our world,” Halvorson says. “And the trade-off of sacrificing reach and paying a higher CPM, to have, in our opinion, a safer environment and a higher quality environment, is 100% worth it, and that it’s a trade-off at these levels that we are willing to make every day.”
Earlier this week, Facebook confirmed that it would open up the News Feed brand safety program to more advertisers. Facebook is conducting the test slowly over the course of this year to see if the controls are workable and effective.
Ad Age spoke with brands and agency executives familiar with the program, and they say the first phase showed promise, but it is not foolproof. “If you’re a global iconic brand, it’s a good idea to take these controls seriously,” says one ad agency exec, who has been briefed on the program.
The rise in the price of ads was to be expected, the exec says. “If there is a pool of users that are ‘brand safest’ that everyone wants to limit themselves to, the CPMs go up even further,” the exec says.
In January, Facebook announced it would develop new measures that theoretically protect brands from content they find objectionable in News Feed. For years, the social network had contended that “adjacency” in News Feed, like the posts that surround a paid ad, was irrelevant—that targeting ads to the individual was more important than context. However, brands have been demanding more safeguards, especially in News Feed, which is the personalized stream of content served to 1.9 billion users a day.
Facebook declined to comment on the program beyond acknowledging that it was expanding the tests. “As of August, we’re expanding the limited test to additional advertisers as we continue to understand efficacy and the performance of the product,” a Facebook spokesperson said by email.
Ad Age learned in June how Facebook is mitigating the possibility of bumping into sensitive subjects in the News Feed. Facebook is categorizing users for their propensity to share links and posts related to the excluded topics. If a user is at a high risk of sharing that content, brands won’t appear in that user’s News Feed. The mechanism is not a guarantee, though, that ads won’t ever appear alongside objectionable material, according to advertisers. There is nothing preventing an ad from appearing in the feed of a friend of the problem user who could have shared a post that contained an excluded topic, advertisers say.
Facebook is working on more direct “adjacency” controls, according to advertisers. The social network is considering a program that brings in independent brand safety companies like Integral Ad Science and DoubleVerify to study the context of ads more closely.
Facebook, like almost all social media sites, has been wrestling with brand safety for years, but the issue gained urgency within the past year. Platforms have contended with COVID-19 disinformation, political turmoil and hate speech. Last summer, civil rights groups organized a month-long ad boycott of Facebook, which signed up more than 1,000 brands, protesting hate speech and disinformation.
In July, Facebook and Twitter both took steps to appease advertisers by announcing they were working with Media Rating Council, an independent auditor. The platforms are using MRC to analyze their brand safety standards and the effectiveness of brand safety tools.
Facebook has more than 10 million advertisers, and its overall ad revenue has not been dented by the criticism from rebellious brands. But since the boycott, brands including Disney and Procter & Gamble repositioned how they spent money on the social network, according to Pathmatics, an advertising analytics firm. Disney dropped from the No. 1 advertiser on the Facebook app in the year before the boycott, to the No. 13 advertiser. Procter & Gamble went from No. 3 to No. 16.
That was part of a trend of some major brands shifting ad dollars to Instagram, which is also owned by Facebook, according to another ad executive, speaking on condition of anonymity. Advertisers were also spending more on Facebook video ads, which already had topic exclusion brand safety controls.
“The job isn’t finished by any means,” the exec says, referring to the first safety controls for News Feed. “It is still a source of fear from a lot of advertisers.”