Protecting Brands From User Content Sites

By Robert Grove

At a recent ClickZ conference session, YouTube sales manager Brian Cusack told an audience of online marketing professionals that only approximately one in every 34 Youtube videos carry an advertisement, a number that surprised everyone.


Even though YouTube users view 4 Billion videos monthly, to date the company has been able to monetize less than 3% of the site content. Cusack addressed the issue by saying that Google was trying to “overcome the perceived risk of appearing next to user-generated content.”

One observer speculated that Google could easily expand ads and ad revenue on the site nearly overnight by activating overlay advertising on all videos regardless of the content and based solely on the words contained in sponsor advertisements.

Even speculating about the idea should send waves of terror through the very core of any self-respecting corporate advertising, marketing or brand manager.

Companies have spent countless man hours and resources developing brand awareness, affinity and loyalty. Protecting the brand and the associated goodwill of the company is job #1. Any employee careless or thoughtless enough to turn over the safeguard of the company brand to people whose sole interest is generating advertising dollars for the benefit of their company’s bottom line, not yours, should be relegated to a job no more responsible than fetching coffee, but only if the orders are written down.

Now companies are presented a myriad of web ad opportunities but the automation of ad placement, no matter how sophisticated the technology, is fraught with danger. It’s little wonder that YouTube is having trouble monitizing the site. In an advertising world where product placement is the new hot topic and ad managers demand to know the nature of the adjacent content, paying for placement in the ever changing, uncontrollable user content environment is a proposition with far more risk than reward. And ad managers are risk averse. Simply having audience numbers isn’t enough.


One of the most egregious examples of the problem happened several years ago with Yahoo’s efforts to monetize their GeoCities space. Before today’s social networks, GeoCities was one of the seminal social spaces. Users could have their own site for free, with the stipulation that Yahoo could automatically overlay a set of revolving ads on each site, similar to what was suggested regarding YouTube.

A simple idea in principle but a disaster in execution. It turned out that GeoCities was a haven for child porn, which Yahoo only loosely monitored. Advertisers buying a “run of service” flight on Yahoo had their ads showing up on pages adjacent to some of the most heinous material imaginable. The automated nature of the ad placement didn’t discriminate by content and the advertisers who had worked so hard on branding appeared to be supporting kiddie porn. Companies like Chevron were horrified when they were told about the problem, especially since Yahoo had never informed them their ads may show up next to this kind of content.

Web advertising and the tools supporting targeting advertising have become far more sophisticated in the 8 years since the Yahoo/GeoCities fiasco. But have they come far enough for companies to take the leap of faith with their ad dollars I don’t believe so.

User generated content on sites like YouTube is constantly changing and all but impossible to monitor, by the advertisers or by YouTube itself. That’s not to say that child porn will proliferate on the site but that user content means user views and opinions, and possible objectionable content,  which can manifest itself in many tough to detect ways. Company brands can be impacted just as easily by adjacency’s to extreme political videos or sexually suggestive offerings as with more extreme content. No technology today is robust enough to protect an advertisers brand against this problem. And there will always be those who are smart  enough to “fool the system” for malicious entertainment. Unless a far more secure system can be developed, ad dollars will be slower to flow into this untamed environment. Rightfully so. Would Google want to expose its well crafted brand to these dangers?



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