Australian publishers are urging marketers to take a more nuanced approach to blocking ads from appearing alongside COVID-19 content. 

Despite audience numbers exploding, news outlets in Australia and around the globe are facing a financial crisis, emphasising that eyeballs don’t always translate to dollars online.  

One corner of the digital advertising ecosystem which has attracted scrutiny in March is the role of brand safety tools which block ads from appearing next to certain types of content. It’s the kind of smarts that makes sure a travel ad doesn’t appear next to a story about a plane crash. 

According to the WSJ, data from brand-safety firm Integral Ad Science shows “Coronavirus” is now the keyword blocked by the most brands, having overtaken “Trump”.

The Guardian reports that UK newspapers may lose £50 million in digital revenues as advertisers use “blacklist” technology to block ads. And, according to Buzzfeed, one brand’s ads were blocked more than 35 million times across more than 100 news sites in 14 countries in March. 

Now local publishers and industry groups have added their voices to the appeal, asking brand and agency teams to revise decisions to halt their programmatic and media buying to prevent any advertising surrounded by topics including “crisis,” “COVID-19,” and “coronavirus”.

“Applying generic brand safety rules without fully considering whether the news organisation is legitimate and critical will cause brands more harm than good,” said Matt Rowley, CEO of Pedestrian.

“We encourage all advertisers to take advantage of their ability to control with precision where their ads appear and to embrace the opportunity to support the ongoing production of news and journalism in these uncertain times.”

IAB is also encouraging brands who may currently be reviewing their creative and messaging before relaunching their advertising campaigns to ensure they consider their policy around which environments they support when they relaunch to ensure they don’t inadvertently block premium content sites.  

“Credible news and media organisations are seeing huge jumps in online traffic, but many brands are blocking advertising from appearing near content mentioning coronavirus.  It’s essential that brands support news and journalism because with this content now so ubiquitous, without advertising support it will be simply unworkable and unsustainable for the production of news content,” Gai Le Roy, CEO of IAB Australia. 

The IAB endorsed Nielsen industry audience measurement currency, Digital Content Ratings, shows that overall time spent on digital news sites and apps is up 29% for March to date compared to the same period in February and records continue to be set daily. 

Tereza Alexandratos, Director, Commercialisation and Delivery at The Guardian said,The coronavirus is one of the most important stories of the decade – advertisers must be brave enough to have their messaging appear next to the stories that Australians are reading. This approach offers the most effective advertising for brands, and for Guardian Australia, we need advertisers support more than ever to ensure our survival and continue reporting on this health crisis.”

Tech fixes

The IAB recommends always using semantic contextual targeting to ensure that you can fully understand the editorial context from the text on the page and the level of risk within or adjacent to the associated environments. 

Measurement and ad verification company Integral Ad Science provides tools for marketers to control where their ads appear, including blocking sites for brand safety reasons. 

Tony Marlow, CMO IAS told Which-50 the initial response of many marketers has been to apply keyword blocking against terms like “coronavirus.”

It is possible that this is a temporary measure as marketers evaluate their stance on appearing adjacent to this type of content. For many of these marketers, the next step will be to apply cognitive semantic technology to refine the precision of brand suitability decisions to include things like the sentiment and deeper context of the page.” 

Marlow said unlike some of its competitors IAS does not offer the ability to block ‘news’ as a category and is advising clients to determine where brand to where their brand belongs and which environments are unsuitable for them. 

“Blocking all news as a brand safety strategy is like wearing a helmet on a stationary bike, sure it’s pretty safe but you look a little ridiculous and you’re going nowhere,” Tony Marlow, CMO, Integral Ad Science.

“We are advising a pragmatic approach, with the consideration that not all COVID-19 content should be deemed unsuitable, and that the broad application of keyword blocking may lead to significant reductions in scale. Given the vital role of trusted content publishers in keeping the public safe and informed, we are advising thoughtful consideration be given to those outlets by advertisers,” Marlow said. 

Marlow said IAS provides tools to avoid over-blocking, for example, sentiment analysis can be used to give marketers more control over the kinds of ads they are blocking. 

“We make sure marketers have the most precise brand safety tools available to accurately deliver upon their intent and to avoid over-blocking. For example, IAS offers clients the ability to leverage a ‘cognitive semantic technology’ which we call ‘Contextual Intelligence’. This is cutting edge technology and enables advertisers to make brand suitability decisions based not just on keywords alone, but things like the sentiment or the semantic context of a page.

“So a brand might choose to be near content like ‘coronavirus quarantine workout tips’, while avoiding more extreme negative stories about tragic patient deaths. The sentiment of the context can have a dramatic impact on a brand’s willingness to be near certain content.” 

Marlow explained the technology understands the semantic difference in situations like this where keywords do not. “For example, if you are an anti-virus software company you can block against virus content outside of a computer context and target toward virus stories covering things like malware.” 

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