Welcome back to BRANDED, the newsletter exploring how marketers broke society (and how we can fix it).
Here’s what’s new with us:
This week’s investigation is a collaboration with Gizmodo.
UPDATE (8/4/21): OpenWeb says they’ve “terminated” 13 publisher relationships and are updating their publisher policies, following our report. Read their statement here.
Last summer, as the Facebook ad boycott was set to launch, audience engagement platform Spot.IM re-launched itself as OpenWeb.
Their timing? Impeccable. It was June 2020 and the #StopHateForProfit campaign had just begun its historic push to boycott Facebook for its role in promoting hate speech. Advertisers, faced with a public reckoning, were seriously exploring what their options might be outside the walled gardens of Facebook and Instagram.
Their messaging? Pitch perfect. Their statements read more like an activist’s manifesto than an adtech platform that has raised $73M in VC funding.
“The movement to Stop Hate for Profit is a long and serious one that starts and ends with each of us,” wrote co-founder Nadav Shoval. “We can boycott and sign petitions, and we can make changes in how we use and activate the web. But to function well as a society we need more choices on where to communicate.”
More choices, and OpenWeb wanted you to know they were it. They showed up with the deliverance that nervous marketers were searching for.
“At OpenWeb… we’re creating environments that constantly spur quality conversations—and keep them going. Helping publishers host the engaging discussions the public is starving for, right beside the stories everyone wants to talk about,” read their mission statement.
Big, if true. There’s just one problem… It doesn’t seem to be.
In this week’s BRANDED, we’re diving into OpenWeb’s Sellers.json, a public record of seller information, which shows that they’re working with exactly the same kind of hate and disinformation outlets that advertisers are seeking protection from.
First, what is OpenWeb? It’s a commenting system (“audience development platform”) designed to keep users commenting directly on-site rather than move those conversations on social media. And of course, they serve ads.
For publishers, having a space for comments means readers can stay longer on the site and see more ads (revenue!). For advertisers, OpenWeb promises a blissfully brand safe alternative to the unpredictable, volatile social media environments of Twitter and Facebook. (We do not have time in this post to discuss the other big part of their business model: 1st party data, which will allow them to identify and track you in the so-called “cookieless” future.)
And at the crux of all this? Premium, high-quality publishers like Refinery29, Salon, Hearst, NewsCorp and CBS. The ones that promote quality conversations not overt racism, trolling, bullying and obscenities.
OpenWeb says they have productized brand safe environments using words like:
A lot of big words there. Let’s look at how all this shakes out on the other end:
As of July 14, OpenWeb’s sellers.json reports direct seller relationships with at least a dozen universally brand-unsafe outlets like:
But what seems bad gets worse. OpenWeb’s sellers.json reveals that they have relationships with a series of “publishers” who are not publishers at all.
The following are all dark pool sales houses, or in other words, intermediaries to hundreds of unrelated publishers that OpenWeb has no control over. What does that mean? When OpenWeb approved the following entities into their inventory, those entities opened the floodgates to even more disinformation outlets.
Whether they approved or not, OpenWeb is working with all these outlets now too.
As far as transparency goes, this is a pretty big blow to advertisers. They think their ads are being placed directly with vetted publishers, and they pay a premium for that. Instead, it’s the same old shenanigans.
So all this begs the question… how do these websites get approved in the first place? We asked co-founder Roee Goldberg. First, he told us:
“We have a strong internal standards policy for all new partnerships. As a part of this policy, we consult several databases and indexes that compile and monitor fake news, hate speech, disinformation, and conspiracy websites. And, while an audit of our more than 1,000 publisher partners has been completed, I appreciate you bringing these cases to light and expressing your concerns regarding these sites.”
So we asked again, more specifically this time: “Do you have a human looking at these websites?” He replied:
“Our team uses a variety of credible third-party indexes of fake news, conspiracy, and hate websites—like Columbia Journalism Review—as a validator. If a prospect is designated as, for instance, fake news or conspiracy, we will decline their interest. If a partner is designated as such, we will terminate our partnership with them quickly as we have done and are continuing to do.”
We’ll take that as a no. Nobody looks at them. Perhaps this is why OpenWeb’s sellers.json contains records of websites that don’t even exist (like 12tribefilms.org) and websites that forward to other websites (makingweb.com).
So much for saving online conversations.
It isn’t news that adtech platforms pass the buck to advertisers however they can, but the OpenWeb situation feels just a little slimier than usual because of their over-the-top claims that they’re funding a healthier, safer web.
In April 2021, OpenWeb brought on Professor Scott Galloway as an investor and board director, who took OpenWeb’s positioning one step further:
“The comments on an article can be as engaging as the content itself. But that engagement can be akin to the noxious emissions of social media. It doesn’t have to be this way. OpenWeb is to social media, what alternative energies are to fossil fuels.” (Scott Galloway in OpenWeb’s April 22 press release)
This is the kind of rhetoric that makes advertisers feel safe. They may believe that they can finally put away their magnifying glass and cross line-item ad checks off their to-do lists. Finally, a platform they can trust to do the work for them.
But OpenWeb isn’t doing that work.
For what it’s worth, OpenWeb removed Silver Doctor and Canada Free Press from their inventory after we contacted them. They claim they have declined to work with Breitbart and Newsmax because they don’t meet OpenWeb’s exacting standards.
They have promised to launch a formal investigation of their partners, even though they just completed a publisher audit. To us, none of it seems to add up.
Check your ads.
Nandini and Claire