The fundamental dichotomy of the COVID-19 pandemic – booming traffic but declining ad revenue – threw publishers into a quandary.

But, little by little, organizations seem to be making headway on getting advertisers to reduce one practice – bluntly side-stepping inventory in any news stories about the virus.

Over the last couple of months, an array of bodies, vendors and publishers has tried to make advertisers understand that blithely using brand safety tools’ keyword filters to root out such opportunities isn’t just harmful to news publishers, it can limit their marketing exposure.

And it seems they may be having some success.

Blocking the blockers

“We’ve actually made a difference,” says David Cohen, president of the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) US.

“If you look at what’s happened over the past two months, when their immediate knee-jerk reaction was to just block the news, we’ve seen that the aperture has opened up by many, agencies, brands, et cetera, which has been great.”

Early in the pandemic, IAB president David Cohen, who had recently joined from IPG’s Magna, published an IAB article, How Brands and Agencies Can Save American Lives in The Coronavirus Crisis.

Publishers’ group Digital Content Next also wrote a letter to marketers and ad verification companies asking them to exempt premium, trusted media companies from COVID-19 brand safety filters.

Virus impact

Keeping ad dollars flowing into news is critical. Many news organizations were already facing unfavorable business conditions before the pandemic struck.

Now they find themselves fighting to keep the lights on in their quest to keep reporting the combined events of biggest health emergency in decades, nationwide race riots and an upcoming presidential election.

IAB’s latest full-year advertising revenue report is not pretty:

  • Q1 2020 US revenues actually rose 12% versus the prior year.
  • But digital advertising revenue growth is slowing as the market reaches maturity.
  • Many publishers report that revenue decline began in March, as the pandemic took hold.
  • Digital CPMs are down 16% versus those planned for.

“Honestly, news is saving lives,” says Cohen, whose IAB represents media companies, brands and technology intermediaries. “Without support of local and national and reputable news, we would all be in a very dire situation.”

His organization has been carrying out an education drive, comprising town hall meetings.

“Obviously we want a healthy, vibrant, ad supported news ecosystem, so it’s good to see that that’s been actually translating to action,” says Cohen, who agrees with others that new software which identifies the semantic meaning of news stories offers an opportunity for advertisers to choose their inventory in more granular detail.

Softening the stance

There are other indicators that the keyword-blocking issue may be abating.

In the last few weeks, Integral Ad Science (IAS), a vendor of brand safety tools, found a 88% decrease in keyword-blocking of COVID-19-related specific keywords.

Like IAB, it has been advising ad buyers against bluntly blocking virus stories – not just to save news publishers, but also because audiences actually don’t mind the adjacency. An April study conducted by Integral Ad Science (IAS) found:

  • A 12% growth in consumers seeking out coronavirus content online.
  • 75% of consumers were actively seeking out news online, that’s 16% up from March, a huge jump.
  • But a vast majority said that adjacency would not change their opinion of a brand.

“Every brand needs to have their view of the world and where do they fit on that brand suitability spectrum, and it’s an entirely appropriate conversation to have,” Cohen says.

“In some cases, as it relates to news specifically, we’ve seen that consumers are leaning in and engaged with news now more than ever, that there is no knockoff effect or deleterious effect, there is no bad effect of a brand appearing in news content.

“Much to the contrary, actually … there is a positive association with news and news-related content.”

This video is part of a series titled Brand Suitability at the Forefront, presented by Integral Ad Science.  For more segments from the series, please visit this page.