For all its complexity, the internet era has brought hotels closer than ever to their potential guests - and each online interaction is a chance to convince those guests to book direct. Thanks to the power of programmatic advertising, hoteliers can go beyond the narrow local reach of newspaper ads, television slots and magazine pages, and promote their brand on a truly international scale.

However, this extensive reach brings with it extensive financial, reputational and legal risk that could damage your hotel’s ability to attract guests online.

Whether it’s businesses inadvertently advertising next to offensive content or fraudsters looking to scam hotels, networks and users with malicious ad slots, programmatic advertising can seem like a murky world. With consumers becoming more security-conscious than ever, a strong approach to brand safety will be crucial in 2020.

Whether your hotel is prospecting or retargeting potential guests, we’ve taken a look at the challenges that advertisers have faced over the past decade, and identified innovative new techniques and easy-to-use fixes your hotel can implement today to help your brand stay safe online.

The reputational risk of low-quality content

Risks to brand safety online are not new, but their impact has dramatically risen over the past few years. Programmatic advertising has grown in popularity and social media platforms have become ubiquitous in our everyday lives. In an era where television and print ads dominated the scene, and hotels were manually working with publishers to distribute their content, brand safety was simply seen as an inevitable compromise that was generally out of their control. However, an exposé in The Times in February 2017 triggered a turning point in how both consumers and advertisers viewed brand safety.

"Big Brands Fund Terror", the headline article in The Times on February 9th 2017, served as a watershed moment for marketers around the world.

After the British newspaper revealed that many major businesses had inadvertently funded terror organisations by advertising on their YouTube videos, the marketing community boycotted over 250 advertisers across the internet in fear of the immense reputational damage that such illicit links could cause.

In an era of fake news and continuous political and social controversy, it’s clear that consumer patience is wearing thin. On a global scale, there is little tolerance when it comes to brands advertising next to poor-quality content. A CMO Council study suggested that 48% of consumers would rethink purchasing a brand, or even boycott them entirely, if their image appeared next to content that offends or concerns them. AdColony’s Global Brand Safety Survey supports this, with 49% of users reporting that an ad would negatively impact the way they viewed an advertiser if it was associated with offensive or inappropriate material.

The financial and legal risks of advertising fraud

Bot fraud is another huge consideration for hotels looking to attract guests to book direct. While ‘bad bots’ only make up 4.5% of all traffic in the travel industry (excluding airlines, who are targeted far more ferociously), bot fraud can be costly for hotels who are not prepared.

Online ad fraud comes in many forms - from employing thousands of people to deliberately interact with ads in bulk, to simply hiding ads whilst still claiming an impression - and is estimated to cost businesses as much as $23 billion every year. In fact, in China alone, there is estimated to be $18.6 billion worth of ad fraud committed every twelve months - and it doesn’t look like it’s going down anytime soon.

Although competent retargeting solutions will not be as badly impacted by this criminal activity - by that point in the booking journey, you’ll only be looking at those who you’ve clearly qualified as human - hotels conducting prospecting campaigns will need to make sure they have effective precautions in place to avoid falling victim to bot fraud.

Brand safety: opportunity or burden?

Brand safety is not just about protecting your hotel’s reputation, but also about increasing your advertising performance. In a recent study, Integral Ad Science found that users were three times more likely to engage with content in a high-quality environment than a low-quality alternative, and that ads next to good content had 20% higher engagement, 30% greater memorability and were 74% more likeable. Similarly, GroupM discovered a 150% increase in visibility in the first 18 months of implementing brand safety measures.

Particularly in Asia, there is clear evidence that high-quality content drives consumer engagement. (Source: IAS)

Contextual brand safety technology that can determine the quality of a web-page not only safeguards against the dangers of automated advertising, but also acts as a way to bid more efficiently, guaranteeing your hotel only appears on websites that can provide users who will be able to see and interact with your carefully crafted content.

The secrets to a successful safety strategy

While the dangers may be clear, effectively implementing brand safety is not quite as black and white. Although you can manually stop advertising on controversial publications and avoid appearing on suspicious sites, blacklists simply aren’t scalable and don’t reflect the endless, round-the-clock nature of the modern internet.

Brand safety has evolved substantially from just reading URL strings and content descriptions, but these methods still run the risk of your brand appearing next to an article about crime or terrorism on an otherwise reputable website such as The Guardian or the New York Times. Furthermore, many website pages may be subject to human interpretation - for example, a satirical article or a columnist that may be citing views your hotel disagrees with, but aren’t outwardly offensive to a basic content checker.

To cope with the complexity of the brand safety challenge, hotels need technologies that are adaptable enough to cope with the programmatic nature of their advertising strategy. Rather than looking for keywords, modern brand safety advances are able to use subtle contextual data across web pages to determine whether an ad should be shown next to certain content - on YouTube, these may include view counts, likes, flags and even video takedowns per channel. This is particularly effective for forms of media that are harder to automatically comprehend, such as videos and music. New international schemes, such as the IAB Gold Standard, have also emerged to improve the digital advertising experience for businesses, and can be useful for hotels looking to ensure they’re compliant with industry standards.

Triptease Retargeting's intelligent contextual brand safety technology can identify the difference between an innocuous article on commuting and breaking news on crime - all on the same publication.

At Triptease, we take a three-pronged approach to brand safety for our Retargeting product. Firstly, our demand-side platform that we use to connect to ad exchanges has its own filters that cut out malicious websites well in advance. Next, we’ve integrated Oracle’s Grapeshot technology that crawls hundreds of millions of webpages daily to understand their subject matter. Through algorithms that are able to understand text and the individual impact of specific words, we’re able to avoid bidding for inventory that may have a high fraud risk or pose a danger to brands - including content featuring adult, criminal or offensive content. Finally, our own proprietary bid model ensures we make the best bidding decisions for your hotel. While this means winning the most lucrative and cost-efficient ad slots on the biggest websites, our bid model also down-ranks those that are not performant - in this case, negative articles that may have slipped through the net.

Better brand-safe than sorry

The brand safety steps we’ve outlined should be standard in any effective advertising strategy - however, many businesses do not take the proper precautions when bidding on behalf of hotels. While the vast majority of content across the internet is safe, 99% of the damage is done by a tiny percentage of inventory that could seriously jeopardize your hotel’s reputation. At the same time, limiting your scope could harm the performance of your prospecting and retargeting strategies.

Brand safety doesn’t mean being risk averse, but instead eliminating the risk through sensible checks and deploying modern technology. No matter the size of your business, market or advertising spend, it’s crucial to ensure you’re working with a transparent provider who you have confidence in, and who will protect the integrity of your brand.