Over the past two years, Facebook has begun to address advertisers’ concerns that they’re not provided enough transparency into and control over where their ads appear across Facebook’s Audience Network ad network of publishers’ sites and mobile apps.

While agency ad buyers acknowledge the steps Facebook has taken, they largely continue to advise clients to avoid buying Facebook’s ad network inventory because transparency and the level of control remains insufficient, most notably because Facebook does not offer a whitelisting option for advertisers to limit their ads to only run on specific publishers’ sites and apps.

Now, Facebook is looking at potentially adding a whitelisting option, according to four agency execs that have discussed the potential feature with Facebook. A Facebook spokesperson confirmed that Facebook has been discussing a whitelisting feature with a handful of advertisers but described the conversations as being very early explorations with no plans to release the future in the near future.

GroupM has put a hold on Audience Network as an inventory source unless a client needs significant scale for a campaign, said Kieley Taylor, managing partner and global head of social at GroupM. An exec at another major media agency said client investment in Audience Network “is low if not at zero” because of the transparency and control issue. And a third major media agency exec said it has “been really resistant to Audience Network given its historical lack of transparency.”

Ad buyers’ primary issues with Audience Network center on the manual process of maintaining their blocklists of publishers on whose sites and apps they do not want their ads to appear and the fact that Facebook does not offer a “whitelisting” option for advertisers to specify the publishers on whose sites and apps they do want their ads to appear and to limit their campaigns to those properties. The lack of the latter has become more glaring in light of advertisers seizing on whitelists as a way to confront YouTube’s brand safety issue.

“I know we can blocklist, but there are quite a few publishers [in Audience Network] that aren’t extremely premium and we would want to avoid. Ideally, a whitelisting strategy is easier to maintain and make sure the ads are in a brand-safe place,” said Carly Carson, social account supervisor at independent agency PMG.

“For a growing number of large enterprise advertisers, [not having a whitelisting option] is a bit of a non-starter if we aren’t able to have that level of control,” said Taylor.

Inventory quality concerns
Even advertisers that have bought Audience Network in the past have had to halt the purchases because of inventory quality concerns.

Last year, Digitas ran a large direct-response campaign for music app client that included Audience Network to satisfy the client’s scale demands, said Lizzy Ryan, media director at Cutwater, who was then working at Digitas. However, two weeks into the six-week campaign, Digitas had to cut Audience Network from the campaign because, while Audience Network was serving millions of impressions, “no one was converting,” she said. After limiting the campaign to only run ads on Facebook and Instagram, the campaign’s impression-to-conversion rate was “much stronger,” said Ryan.

After Digitas cut Audience Network from the campaign, Facebook’s sales reps gave the agency advice on how to use its blocklists to winnow some of the publishers that were carrying its ads. “They wanted us to use [Audience Network] because it allows us to spend so much more on the platform a day,” said Ryan, who said that the client was spending five times as much money when Audience Network was part of the campaign compared to when the ads were limited to Facebook and Instagram.

Placement reports and blocklists
Facebook began providing advertisers with the blocklist option in June 2017 after major ad buyers including GroupM and Digitas advised clients against buying Audience Network inventory because of transparency concerns. At the time the company also announced that it would provide advertisers with lists of which publishers might carry their ads before a campaign went live so they could add any unwanted publishers to their blocklists. Additionally, the company would provide post-campaign placement reports cataloging where their ads did in fact appear. Those placement reports were rolled out more widely to advertisers in 2018.

“The placement level reporting was one of our huge asks,” said Taylor, who cited the reports as being among the “huge improvements” that Facebook has made to provide more transparency and control for Audience Network buys.

Manual brand safety management
However, taking advantage of Facebook’s placement reports and blocklists can be more work than it is worth. For starters, compiling blocklists is a manual process in which advertisers or their agencies must comb through the placement reports to identify publishers they would like to block. That manual process is complicated by the fact that Facebook continues to add publishers to its Audience Network, requiring advertisers and agencies to manually update their blocklists.

“The actual number of partners included on the pre-campaign transparency list has skyrocketed,” said Ryan Sammartino, associate director of paid social at iProspect. “There are a lot of cases where advertisers are happy that they have that level of transparency, but now the level of transparency is overwhelming because they don’t want to comb through nearly 50,000 [sites and apps that are part of Audience Network].” Whitelisting would help since advertisers can only block up to 10,000 sites and apps per campaign, but so would having a way to automate the management of those blocklists.

For now, Facebook does not provide a way for brand safety vendors such as OpenSlate to automate their management of advertisers’ and agencies’ blocklists. Facebook is developing an API for third-party vendors to connect to in order to automatically manage advertisers blocklists, the Facebook spokesperson confirmed but declined to share more details.

If Facebook does add a whitelisting option for Audience Network and a tool for brand safety vendors to automatically manage advertisers’ blocklists, ad buyers may still seek additional controls. After the whitelisting option, atop the wishlist of several agency execs is an option to block sites and apps at the keyword level. That way an advertiser who may be comfortable running on a news publisher’s site but wants to avoid certain coverage areas could specify keywords to avoid so that its ads don’t appear against articles containing those keywords.

“The transparency measures have definitely helped. We’re able to blocklist and see where we’re running. But I think there’s a lot more that needs to be done before brands are truly comfortable with the inventory,” said Carson.

An earlier version of this story stated that Lizzy Ryan was working at Cutwater when she ran a campaign for a client last year that originally included Audience Network. After this article published, a representative for Cutwater notified Digiday that Ryan had been working at Digitas, not Cutwater, when she worked on the campaign.

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