Should advertisers worry about brand safety on social media?

By Shazia Khan

Globe Content Studio

Toronto, Ontario, Canada

In February 2022, the Globe Content Studio team was gearing up for the next episode of Studio Sessions, a monthly livestream featuring interviews with experts about trends in content marketing. We had a great guest lined up, we were promoting the event to our followers, and we were watching interest grow across our channels.

The day before we were due to go live, news broke of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The whole world’s attention instantly shifted to that cataclysmic event. In the moment, a light and breezy marketing discussion no longer felt relevant. We made the decision to cancel, and we publicly posted that due to “recent world events,” we would put Studio Sessions on pause.

There is no sure thing on social media platforms, including their safety.
There is no sure thing on social media platforms, including their safety.

At the time, it felt like the biggest “brand safety” challenge we’d face in 2022. But now we live in a post Elon Musk-owns-Twitter world.

The billionaire’s acquisition of the popular micro-blogging network became official just a few weeks before another planned episode of Studio Sessions. This time, we were scheduled to interview Sarah Bugeja, vice president of marketing at Later, a social media management platform.

We didn’t shy away from the news cycle because this time it offered the perfect opportunity to dig into what is now a pressing topic for many advertisers. We spoke about what brand safety really means in the social space and whether companies should approach it differently given the current climate.

One of the takeaways from that discussion is that social “safety” is a construct.

Social media sites have never been “safe” environments, and they never will be. Humans who use these platforms are the product, and those humans are … well, human. As The Verge’s Nilay Patel recently put it: “The problem when the asset is people is that people are intensely complicated, and trying to regulate how people behave is historically a miserable experience.”

That may sound harsh, but it’s also what makes these sites so enduringly popular. Humans are built to socialise, and we increasingly want to do so digitally, as imperfect and unpredictable as that experience is. Brands that are brave enough to play in these spaces have access to a massive amount of attention. High risk, high reward.

The fact that this ecosystem isn’t inherently “safe” doesn’t mean advertisers should avoid enabling at least some protections. The keys to mitigating brand risk are largely still the same:

Brush up on policy

All major social sites offer robust documentation on how they keep communities safe for both users and advertisers. At a minimum, read through them. Or, if you have, now is a good time to review them. Like everything in social media, these policies can turn on a dime.

Use the tools

Platforms typically moderate content in line with those community standards. Additionally, many also offer brands some degree of extra control over where or how their ads are presented.

For example, Meta allows advertisers to select different inventory filters, create block lists, and exclude certain placements. Many are comfortable with just the default settings, but if your brand needs to be more careful with context, take full advantage of these tools where you can.

Watch for red flags

It’s one thing for these companies to put their policies in writing, but as we know, actions speak louder than words.

It seemed like Twitter’s safety and content standards would not change under Musk’s leadership (and technically, they still haven’t).

Drastic safety and moderation changes at Twitter require brands to be diligent.
Drastic safety and moderation changes at Twitter require brands to be diligent.

However, news of deep cuts to content moderation and safety teams, high-profile resignations, increased impersonations, and ads appearing in controversial pages are signs that the stated safeguards may no longer be a priority.

All brands are different, so each of them needs to do their own cost-benefit analysis in this rapidly changing environment. At what point would the risk outweigh the reward for you to be on Twitter, or any platform for that matter? Write down what those key indicators are, and make sure your whole social team knows them so they can take action quickly.

Plan ahead

Don’t wait for things to go wrong; have a strategy ready for when they do.

If your message appears in an unfavourable environment, decide in advance how you’ll respond to any backlash (or if you even need to). If a platform no longer feels safe or holds value for your brand, think about where you can shift ad dollars or organic marketing tactics to next. Ideally, you already have a pretty diverse media mix and can make these moves quickly. But if not, it’s time to start trying new channels, or revisiting others you may have forgotten about.

The first rule of social media marketing is to “know thyself.” Have a clear sense of your identity and purpose, and make sure that carries through in everything you post. As long as you stick to that, and your messaging routinely upholds the values you stand for regardless of the other posts that might surround it at any given time, your reputation should weather the winds of social media volatility.

As Bugeja said in our Studio Sessions conversation, “Operating from a consistent, genuine place is the best way to work toward brand safety.”

About Shazia Khan

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