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Brand Safety in Podcast and YouTube Advertising


November 23, 2022


November 23, 2022

Launching a new marketing partnership often feels like a leap of faith into the unknown. You’ve done your research or found the right partner to help you navigate the process. Your strategy is sound. And now it’s up to the media to run as scheduled and perform to your KPIs. But when it comes to channels that include talent, like podcast and YouTube, there’s an additional layer of consideration and preparation needed because working with hosts is a unique two-sided partnership—the host is endorsing your brand, and your brand is also endorsing the host. And because of that, it's critically important to consider your brand safety plan.

This type of dual partnership requires a deep level of trust from both sides. How can marketers feel confident that the talent they’re working with will uphold their brand values? And how can hosts ensure that the companies they promote have their audiences’ best interests at heart? 

Host-Read Ads Offer Big Rewards and Big Risks

Podcast and YouTube advertising is so effective because of the human connection between hosts and the audience. To the listener or viewer, it feels like the host of the show is a trusted friend giving a recommendation for a product or service they use and actually like. But this human element, which makes these ads so powerful and effective, also comes with risks and potential problems. When a host is speaking authentically and positively about a brand, there’s an implied endorsement within the delivery even though it may not technically be a personal endorsement. And this type of perceived endorsement is not one-sided—it’s also an implied endorsement by your brand of this host and what they stand for. If either party acts badly—embarrassing or incendiary behavior from a host or poor business practices from a company—there can be blowback from the public. This often comes in the form of Twitter tirades, angry customer service emails, conversations on special interest subreddits or media outlet coverage. This can lead brands and hosts into fight or flight mode where both parties try to defend why they chose the partnership and whether the behavior (which is out of their control) is something they can still endorse. 

For marketers, assessing these types of partnerships—and their inherent risks—starts with brand safety guidelines. 

How to Determine Brand Safety Guidelines

When considering partnerships, marketers must understand the boundaries of their brand safety and define where the proverbial line is. Sometimes this requires uncomfortable conversations with internal stakeholders, but it’s vital that the guidelines are absolutely clear. Gauging reactions to general political or sexual topics is typically a good starting point, but you may need to be more nuanced than that. Often companies will declare they don’t want their ads to run within controversial content, but we all have different personal ideological stances on what we deem “controversial.” This can lead to confusion down the road during decision making, since every topic exists within a spectrum of acceptability, determined largely by personal beliefs. It may be uncomfortable to dive deep into these tough conversations, but it’s much better to do it before you launch than realize you’ve crossed the line after the spots have already run. 

Topics to cover in your brand safety guidelines

Here is a list of starter topics to think about addressing internally before you begin conversations with outside partners:

  • Politics
  • Sex and sexuality
  • Religion
  • Racism
  • Sexism
  • Other -isms
  • Guns
  • Swearing
  • Specific health topics, like vaccines or abortion

Even if a show itself doesn’t address these topics head on, the host could have a particular viewpoint they share publicly within other channels, which could run the risk of a perceived endorsement of those beliefs by your brand through sheer association. If controversial topics are discussed within the content of the show, consider discussing how those issues will be framed and factor that into your decision making. 

What level of nuance should you aim for? Here’s an example: If the topic of sex has been deemed as too controversial, does that also apply to content that discusses sexual wellness or education? Is talking about sex in the context of talking about dating or married life appropriate or not? 

Let’s look at another example, this time falling within the political spectrum: If all political content is off the table, what does that mean for content that discusses relevant topics in the news or pop culture that inevitably bleed into politics? Is it okay if a host is open about their political leanings and discusses it outside of the ad read within the show? If politics are fair game, but you want to avoid controversial content (also known as “contro”) what within the political discourse is considered contro? And if the host responsible for the contro connotation isn’t voicing the ad, would you still be okay with a branded ad running within that host’s content?

Resources for determining what is actually controversial

It’s evident that there’s a lot to consider in these conversations. To aid in your ideological debates, we recommend checking out a few helpful resources:

  • The Media Bias Chart offers examples of political content that are evaluated by an independent source and identifies where they fall on the left-right political spectrum. 
  • Magellan or Podscribe can alert you to certain “no-no” words or topics that you want to flag when checking out potential show partners. These tools have keyword analysis that can be helpful to gut check shows before booking. 
  • New resources are emerging regularly, as seen in Spotify’s announcement that they’re partnering with Integral Ad Science to establish a third party brand safety solution for advertisers.

As the channels mature, there will be more tools to provide support for conversations happening on marketing teams, but it’s important to use all resources you have at your disposal today, including your partners.  

Partnering with Networks on Brand Safety

Depending on how you buy your media, the network or publisher that represents the show acts as another tool at your disposal. They have insider knowledge of what topics are discussed by the host and can be a sounding board for any qualms or questions about brand safety. They typically have their own ways of evaluating brand safety for themselves and for other advertisers, and likely had similar conversations about the talent as you might be having internally. During these chats with networks, you can also discuss terms and conditions to include in contracts that ensure you’re safeguarding your brand. We base our terms and conditions for podcast and YouTube on IAB standard terms, which already include language around speech that can guard against the most extreme violations. However it’s always wise to consider the type of ad you’re buying and discuss what support the network can offer if something does go awry. For embedded spots on podcasts and YouTube, they may live online forever, or there may be limited ability to remove the ad, so it’s important to understand the implications of booking, including how long your brand will be associated with the host or show. We trust our partners to determine “good business,” but depending on the type of internal sentiments, all companies need to do individual evaluations at the show level to mitigate risk. 

After determining brand safety boundaries, discussing mitigation tactics with your network, and doing your own deep dive into show particulars, you may feel like you’re in the clear to launch ads on shows. Despite good intentions from all parties, you must remember that we’re still working with the human element, which means things could change at any moment. To prepare for the worst, broach the uncomfortable topics now, pre-launch, before it’s too late. 

Preparing for a Brand Safety Breach

It’s not fun to work on a worst-case scenario plan but in doing so, you’re protecting your brand with strategies to ensure any bad situation doesn’t get worse. All brands need to have an action plan so they can move in tandem with partners to resolve problems. An issue where a host goes off the rails, whether that be a derogatory statement or past actions that come to light, affects not just the marketing program but other departments as well. The customer service team may get flooded with emails from angry customers. The social team may be fielding terse Tweets demanding they take a stand against the host’s actions. The PR team may be hounded by news outlets for a statement as the headlines make waves in the media. Each team may instinctively take a different approach to the solution, and if there isn’t a unified front to override that, the public will notice—and so will your show partners. 

A Scandal Happened. Now What?

First things first: stop. It will probably feel tempting to act fast and try to move on as quickly as possible to get this bad situation behind you. But you need time to understand the full impact of the incident to take the right next steps. Acting too quickly can sometimes fan the embers of an issue into a full-blown fire; it’s important not to, for example, have a knee-jerk reaction on social media to a single post from a user. That kind of communication could easily backfire into a bigger issue than the first post.

Acknowledge the situation

Often the first best course of action is to provide a simple statement to acknowledge that you’re investigating the incident and are determining the future of your partnership. This isn’t what the public might want to hear, but it’s the truth. You cannot explain, in a Tweet with 280 characters, the nuance behind initiatives that required many hours of planning and forethought. Prepare a generic statement that can be used across teams, like customer service, social, and PR. That creates time for your team to understand the issue and make a calculated next step and give you a chance to make sure that all teams know how to handle the situation. This time of evaluation gives you a moment to understand the actual issue but also take the pulse of impact on a larger scale. 

Identify how bad it really is

As you start to dig deeper into the incident, consider all possibilities of how this can be explained. Was something misinterpreted or is it actually a violation of your brand safety guidelines? Is the public outraged at something that was a very definitive strategy to widen your audience beyond your existing base? Keep in mind that the news cycle is moving faster than ever, and sometimes small issues can feel catastrophic in the moment, but they’ll often likely blow over in a few days. 

Within your investigation, it’s wise to contact your sales representative to discuss the incident, (if they haven’t already reached out proactively). They know it’s bad. You know it’s bad. But just how bad is it? That’s what you need to figure out together. We highly encourage you to consider your network rep your partner in finding a resolution; they quite literally represent the talent in question. They’ll be able to discuss what tactics they have at their disposal to help deal with the blowback and give you options to evaluate the partnership going forward. Approaching the issue with a mindset of how best to solve, not where to place blame, is the best strategy to preserve your working relationship not only with the network rep, but also with the show. You may determine the incident is actually fine in the end, but if you go into conversations pointing fingers and assigning blame, you may burn the bridge for media you still want in your program. 

When thinking about partnerships at risk after an incident, and whether or not you still want to continue with a show, ask yourself about public and private consequences. What are the public repercussions of continuing to partner with this host or show? This can mean continued negative outreach from the public, harm to your brand sentiment, or the perception that the brand values don’t align with media choices. What are the private repercussions of not continuing with the show? Meaning, is there significant business impact, in terms of performance and contribution to the health of the channel, if you remove this show from the program?

Taking Action and Moving Forward

Once you understand the impact of the incident and choose a path forward, it’s time to act swiftly and confidently. If you’ve deemed the actions as something your brand cannot stand behind, this might result in the removal of ads (if possible), cancellation of future spots, or other optimization levers you discussed with your network rep. If you choose to continue partnering, this could mean taking a break from the ad schedule to let the issue blow over, adding revised language in the terms and conditions to further protect your brand, or updating your copy guidelines to prevent future issues. 

Regardless of your choice to continue with the partnership or not, we highly recommend being respectful to everyone in the process, even the perpetrator, and only share as much information as needed in the public forum. As much as you might want to win back those that felt disappointed with a strong follow-up statement, it can be extremely difficult to explain high level brand strategy and customer acquisition tactics to a bifurcated landscape on the internet. Publicly condemning or “canceling” a personality might even have a worse effect and could incite their fans or those that feel the opposite of the people who initially reached out to you with objections. Using incendiary language online that may not match your more thoughtful conversations with your network partners could lead to an erosion of trust and leave them having to explain to hosts why a former brand partner is now bashing them online. Instead of re-opening the wound and continuing the discourse with the public, private actions can help you move on faster. 

Taking Steps to Prevent Future Issues

As controversy surrounding the incident dies down, the last step in the process is to reevaluate your current brand safety guidelines and the systems put in place for handling an incident across your teams. As you determine if there were additional tactics you could have put in place to prevent the incident, make the necessary changes to ensure those tactics are there for the future. Take stock of the rest of the shows on your roster with this new lens and ensure that, at least on paper, every partner passes the test. Once you’ve updated the procedure, make sure your teams understand the new plan for the next time an incident occurs. Because as you now know, things can go awry at any moment, but at least now you’ll be prepared. 

The unique connection the hosts have with their audience makes these channels work extremely well for advertisers, so with safeguards and strategy in place, you can confidently say that they earn their worth within your marketing plans. 

Do you want to take your podcast or YouTube advertising efforts to the next level? Right Side Up’s offline team can help. Reach us at growth@rightsideup.co to get started.

Lindsay Piper Shaw is a director of offline marketing at Right Side Up, where she partners with innovative brands on in-house marketing initiatives, including podcast and other offline channels. Prior to joining Right Side Up, Lindsay scaled podcast campaigns for brands like quip, Lyft, and Texture, and she has also worked with McDonald’s, Honda, ampm, and Tempur-Sealy, among others. She is passionate about the podcast space as a growth driver, and especially loves educating newcomers in the channel. In her free time she listens to podcasts and makes a podcast called Murder We Wrote (she really can’t get enough podcasts).

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