Whilst the world comes together to combat COVID-19, the need for quality news media has never been greater. Every day, people are visiting their trusted news sites for the latest facts and information. Journalists are working around the clock to deliver. This spur in heightened traffic should be delivering the financial results to reward trusted journalism.
Alas, in many cases, the opposite is happening. In the case of the UK, newspapers face losing £50m in digital revenues as advertisers use “blacklist” technology to block ads from appearing next to all stories that mention the coronavirus pandemic. Across Europe, the loss may therefore run into hundreds of millions of lost revenues. This ads to other advertising monestisation challenges publishers are facing, including but not limited to campaign cancelation by advertisers who do not advertise during the crisis, ad blocking, consumers drawn to disinformation websites.
Advertisers are in a catch-22 situation of needing to still be visible but not wanting to appear alongside content whose gravity may seem incongruous with the idea of consumption or with the promotion of a particular good or service. After The Times revealed in 2017 that ads for major brands were running against terrorist content on YouTube, brand safety became the number one priority for the industry. IAB Europe’s brand safety poll at the beginning of this year revealed that brand safety continues to remain crucially important in 2020, with 77% of respondents saying that brand safety was a key priority. Fifty-seven percent of respondents also agreed that brand safety was top of mind to a greater degree than in previous years, citing increased understanding and knowledge of brand safety by advertisers.
As with any crisis, advertisers have implemented different avoidance technologies to limit negative ad adjacencies. Some have implemented post-bid blocking, others pre-bid targeting, both of which have different revenue impact on publishers. Keyword blocking is part of the avoidance strategy. COVID-19 has caused some buyers to extend the use of their avoidance technologies to prevent some or all COVID-19 ad adjacencies. The inclusion of the exact match words such as ‘crisis', ‘coronavirus’ or ‘COVID-19’ has had the unintended consequence of blocking all advertising from appearing on COVID-19 related content, thus limiting the availability of monetizable inventory to the publisher. Citing IAS data, Digiday recently reported that in February, “coronavirus” became the second-most common word on block lists for news publishers, up from eighth-most common in January .
Whilst it is important that advertisers ensure their advertising does not appear next to content that is unsuitable for their brand, they must be careful about their reliance on exact match keyword blocking which could restrict revenue flow for publishers and news sites which are fundamental to providing up to date information on the pandemic. This seems particularly relevant in light of the additional challenge of users being confronted with deliberate disinformation, making support for reliable coverage all the more important.
So how can a responsible approach to brand safety ensure that brands remain protected and quality journalism is rewarded?
IAB Europe recommends that during COVID-19 a blanket brand safety approach of blocking all Coronavirus or COVID-19 content is not applied. Brands should work closely with their media agencies, verification companies, and trusted news partners to make an informed decision by looking at the facts about the value of news environment and implementing smart solutions to ensure that their advertising continues to reach the correct audiences during COVID-19.
IAB Europe member Emily Roberts, Programmatic Trading Manager, EMEA from BBC Global News commented “Audiences are turning to us now, more than ever, with record-breaking numbers of people coming to BBC.com each week. COVID-19 is again highlighting just how important trusted news is in people’s lives, helping them understand and gain perspective on key issues and events. We have always been there to help our audiences understand the world and the same philosophy that underpins our editorial commitment also underpins our commitment to our commercial partners – we want our partners to know we are here to help and want to get through these unprecedented and challenging times together. Therefore, we are asking brands to be more nuanced with their contextual targeting and not to block news. You can access our audiences in a brand safe and brand suitable environment and at the same time support trusted, quality journalism”.
Some of the national IABs have already produced best practice guidance to support these discussions.
Premium and local European publishers, who are the backbone of the National IABs, offer a rich range of information sources for citizens, further supporting our democratic society. They need to be rewarded for that. Advertisers, agencies, and the ad tech companies that support them need to lean in and support quality journalism now more than ever.
Townsend Feehan, CEO, IAB Europe