Guest Columns
5 mins read

Too big to fail: What the Facebook boycott means for brand safety

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” It seems like Dickens’ quote represents 2020 more than anything. We live in an unprecedented world with a pandemic surrounding us, not just as part of COVID-19, but also as part of the hate speech that keeps rising. Even at the darkest hour, we still see people all over the world coming together and protesting against hate and inequality on the streets and online.

And for publishers and advertisers, understanding how to speak directly to an audience is crucial, while battling the many challenges of marketing on user-generated content sites. But in order to understand how to be successful in this environment, we must first understand how we got here, and what we can learn from it.

The Facebook Boycott Heard Around the World

Recently, Facebook has gotten into a pickle with brands who advertise on the platform. This comes at a crucial time when major brands and platforms are taking a stance against hate and injustice. It feels as if Facebook is allowing all types of content on its platform for the sake of growth and the lack of willingness to become an arbiter. Thus, we’ve seen brands calling for a boycott on Facebook and its advertising platform. Some of these advertisers, like Starbucks, spent millions of dollars in 2019 on Facebook.

Despite the boycott, this situation doesn’t seem to pose a threat to the platform beyond a PR issue, likely to be controlled by policy changes and public apologies. Boycotting Facebook, or any similar platform, wouldn’t even be an option for many advertisers, because it would likely cripple their business more than current events already have, especially for SMBs.

Brand Safety Over User Content

Now more than ever, people have quick access to filming and documenting events. They also have the ability to create content on a larger scale. This can be a double-edged sword for brands. It lets brands connect with their audiences, but with a catch.

The biggest challenge with User Generated Content (UGC) on platforms is the sheer amount of content that violates platform guidelines but is never caught. UGC poses certain brand safety risks, forcing brands to respond when platforms don’t intervene. In 2017, YouTube experienced a spike in hateful and offensive content, including terrorist videos and extremist materials. The platform couldn’t ensure advertisers wouldn’t appear next to the videos, forcing brands to pull back their advertising spend, or eliminate it completely. However, a few months later, most of the brands were back. Between March and June 2017, advertising spend on YouTube fell by 17% to $739 million, but when you look at numbers YoY for the same period, advertising spend went up by 50%. The brands that pulled back their budgets were also back at it and spending again after YouTube made some policy changes.

Publishers, How Can We Thrive?

In this industry, there’s always talk around the open web vs. the walled gardens. While spend is certainly starting to shift towards the open web, it seems like the dependency on the walled gardens is still significant. While it might seem insignificant to brands, this hurts traditional publishers, as they keep losing ad revenue because users will go to Facebook first and the majority of the ad spend will continue to go to Facebook. It’s also important to remember that in a world where it’s easy to generate content without backing it with facts, journalism must continue to grow outside of the walled gardens.

The Do’s and Don’ts of Being Successful

The real questions we should consider are: what happens next, and how do we learn from this reckoning? Instead of allowing UGC to rule the conversation, be an active participant. I believe brands should try and stick by the following:

  1. Be Active, Not Reactive. Simply responding to issues as they arise is not enough for today’s consumers. The way people look at brands and publishers is a lot more critical than it used to be. Brands are changing policies and trying to be more involved in social issues. Take Nike, and their support of Colin Kapernick, as an example. Or The New York Times, and the front page of names lost to COVID-19. These are initiatives that help people identify with a brand or publisher, and in turn, lead to consumer loyalty.
  2. Stick Up For Social Issues. Brands and publishers alike should use their platforms to focus on social issues that matter to their audience. Consider how to help when it comes to addressing them. Is it a commercial showing support? Or a front page dedicated to the movement? It’s clear that brands are not governments and are not there to solve all problems of society. However, if they can help in some way, then they have a responsibility to do so, and could in turn gain trust from people who see them acting according to the social conscience.

2020 has opened our eyes to the many injustices around the world and taught us to navigate a global pandemic, but there’s more that can be done. Content sites, like Tik Tok, Facebook, and YouTube, will continue to spread the voices of the consumers, but it’s up to publishers and advertisers to connect the dots.

Focusing on doing good should also be amplified through all digital channels. A diversified marketing strategy is one that goes beyond social media and encompasses all digital channels. Whether it’s traditional publishers or the open web, expanding the scope is key. I’m confident that brands who are boycotting Facebook right now will come back to the platform soon, but I urge them to use these platforms for good and amplify content that is focused not only on how the brand is dealing with social issues, but also provide a stage for all voices to be heard. The positive outcome of this lousy situation is that brands can rediscover what made the open web such a great place to begin with.

Lior Charka
Head of Demand-Side Product, Outbrain

Outbrain is the world’s leading discovery and native advertising feed for the open web. A third of the world’s Internet-connected population explore and discover information through its feed technology, which is trusted by emerging to established brands and integrated into thousands of media companies’ tech stacks to manage and monetize their publishing operations. Outbrain operates in 55 countries and is headquartered in New York City with offices in 18 cities worldwide.