COVID-19 is going to be an inflection point in an unimaginable number of ways. Countless individual lives will be impacted. The nature of work, specifically remote work, will likely change dramatically in the wake of this crisis.
In our corner of the economy - at the intersection of digital advertising and brand safety - we can only hope that the unfolding events can serve as an opportunity to reexamine our approach to news and how brands relate to the real news stories that touch on potentially controversial subjects.
To be clear, this is not a new phenomenon. The news – be it local or national TV, newspapers, or radio – has always covered subjects that might be considered brand-unsafe: murder, scandal, tragedy, disease, drugs, alcohol, sex, bullying, discrimination, and crime.
Despite this, news outlets have traditionally been viewed as strong channels for advertisers. A good local newspaper ad-ops department would be smart enough not to place the local travel agency's ad next to the story about the plane crash. That wouldn't prevent the travel agent from advertising on the front page.
Fast-forward to a time where the number of media outlets has grown exponentially. Automated tools are substituted for a clever human in the ad-ops department who knows each of his or her brand and agency partners and their preferences. In this environment, we find that it is easier to just block any potentially questionable content by broad keyword rather than be more nuanced in our approach.
This is the natural industry (over-)reaction to a wave of stories on the unintended consequences of programmatic ad buying placing reputable brands alongside disreputable content, and the watchdog organizations that have emerged to report on them.
The criticism of this backlash had already started before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the crisis certainly brings the current situation into specific relief. It has frankly been easier to use brute force keyword techniques to prevent negative ad adjacency rather than having trained Brand Safety Officers doing the work to consider the source and context of a potentially concerning set of keywords.
In taking the easy path, the digital advertising ecosystem is eschewing a trusted channel that has a vital role to play in society. There is no evidence that consumers penalize brands for aligning themselves with legitimate news content, even when the story being reported on touches on potentially disturbing topics. In the opposite direction, there is evidence that reliable news sites represent a well above average advertising channel.
So, what can we do about it?
The first thing is to start thinking about this more broadly than just in relation to COVID-19. While the current pandemic has acted as a catalyzing event to accelerate the conversation within in the industry on this topic, it is hardly the be-all and end-all on the subject. The discussion should be about a vital and useful advertising channel being marginalized due to insufficient effort and tools.
If you're looking for a quick solution on how to support credible digital news outlets there are options.
A simple one would be to move away from individual articles and focus on sponsorship of main pages and section pages. These often get caught up in keyword blocking because they contain article topics but the details that might be viewed as controversial don't appear until the reader clicks on the underlying article.
When it comes to actually identifying the sites where it would be safest to do this, there are a number of places to start, including:
If you use brand safety vendors, update your policies to ensure you have the appropriate levels of ad delivery against current events. This is something that Brand Safety Officers should be doing on a weekly basis, and that's more important that ever, as the the world situation can change so rapidly.
Compile your own inclusion list.
To the last point, BSI is proud to support a joint effort by Scott Cunningham, author of Defining Brand Safety Series and Founder of the IAB Tech Lab, and the Local Media Consortium, who have compiled a simple inclusion list of more than 3000 news media domains by geography across the United States.
The Local News Advertising Inclusion List is free to use. While this list will not be perfect or all-encompassing, it will be updated as publishers are added and other important attributes are requested to be added.
With any of the above tactics, you will want to observe your other brand safety guidelines and procedures. These resources will help you create a baseline of inventory where you can rest assured that the sensitive topics that might alert your keyword blocking tools are reporting the news and supporting public safety.
Perhaps that is the best point to leave you with, is that this isn't a plea to support the media out of societal obligation during a crisis such as COVID-19, or at the cost of business results. With access to engaged audiences, and a mission to support local communities, news publishers are a a simple, premium business tool. This is advice to do the modest amount of work necessary to properly leverage them.