Whitelisting for Brand Safety: Pros, Cons and Misconceptions

The term “whitelisting” makes many digital marketers feel all warm and fuzzy inside. Employing a preapproved list of domains to a programmatic advertising campaign allows us to sleep soundly knowing that we are doing everything possible to ensure our brands aren’t tainted by the “wild west” of the open exchange. But is whitelisting the best way to ensure brand safety?

Before we get into the pros and cons of this popular tactic, let’s explore the misconceptions that surround whitelisting.

Common Misconceptions Around Whitelisting

1. Whitelisting Equates to a Direct Buy—False

While whitelisting is a definite boon to brand safety, it is not as failsafe as many digital marketers like to think. Many mistakenly believe that by whitelisting a premium site, they are guaranteed quality impressions on those sites. In reality, the bid is still occurring on the open market, meaning there is still the chance of being outbid.

2. Whitelisting Eliminates Ad Fraud—False

Another common misconception is that whitelisting will eliminate ad fraud. Whitelisting itself is not guaranteed fraud protection. it’s important to work with a programmatic partner that employs sufficient fraud protection technology prior to any whitelisting on the brand’s end.

So, what are some valid reasons for using a list of pre-approved domains?

Pros of Whitelisting

1. Increased Brand Safety

While whitelisting isn’t the cut and dry exchange that many marketers believe it to be, it is the standard approach to increasing brand safety across the board. Big brands like JP Morgan ChaseP&G, and Vodafone have all opted for a strict whitelist strategy when it comes to programmatic.


1. Missing Out on Customers

According to Joe Barone of GroupM, “If you’re using programmatic to generate efficient reach and scale with ad targeting, whitelists can hamper the ability to do that broadly.”. While reach and scale are not the be all and end all, too limited a whitelist can significantly affect campaign results. An ExchangeWire article titled “Brands Need to Move Beyond Blacklists & Whitelists” states, “By only advertising on websites included on a whitelist, brands may be missing valuable opportunities on other websites that haven’t been assessed, therefore restricting the reach of a creative campaign.”. This leads into our second point:

2. Longtail Content Creators Will Get Left in the Dust

Just because a publisher is not what we at StackAdapt call a “Premium 3” publisher: a household name like CNN or Better Homes & Gardens, does not mean they are not a valuable advertising investment. In fact, browsing behaviour on smaller, niche sites seems to point to higher levels of intent than more generic, though better known, domains. Imagine missing out on some of the most targeted sites out there, for example, Mommy blogs like momtaxi.com or mommyshorts.com or cycling sites like bikeradar.com or mtbr.com because they simply aren’t in your listed of pre-approved domains.

According to AdAge: “Smaller content creators, not necessarily offensive but not pre-approved either, could be stuck in an underfunded zone, cut off from automated ad flows.”

3. Driving Up Prices

The most concerning effect of widespread whitelisting is the economic impacts. On a basic level, such large scale demand for a relatively small percentage of inventory will drive up the price of in-demand publishers. On a more alarming note, brand initiated whitelisting could drive the programmatic landscape back to the days of network hegemony that the open exchange was meant to eliminate:

“Premium inventory could fall prey to selling and reselling by powerful brokers, like tickets to the only concert in town. If fewer sites are ‘eligible’ for ads, then this becomes much more of an investment play,” says Jared Belsky, president of 360i in an article for AdAge: “The big guys gobble up inventory and arbitrage it all over the place, re­creating the ad networks of the past, which we are running from.”


It’s true that whitelisting is an effective brand safety measure, but employing these lists on a brand by brand basis may not answer the complex problems digital marketers face today such as ad fraud and quality at scale. Ultimately, the question is not whether or not to whitelist, but who should be in charge of whitelisting?

Any programmatic partner worth their salt has already audited the domains their ads are served on and employs various layers of fraud detection technology. Choosing a programmatic partner you can trust seems a far better option than using a predetermined list of domains that can lead to missed opportunities, ineffective scale, a jump in advertising costs, and a return to the days of all-powerful ad networks. Question your programmatic partner’s internal brand safety measures before attempting to clean up a list that may be clean to begin with.

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