Can the Coronavirus Crisis Prompt a Correction in Brand Safety Tactics?

Publishers urge more ingenuity over keyword blacklisting as the pandemic impacts revenue

A person shielding themselves from coronavirus
Opinions vary on just how much keyword blacklisting is leading to the current slump in CPMs.
Sources: Getty Images

Key insights:

The coronavirus pandemic is upending economies, sparking arguably the biggest work-from-home migration in history. And as the global calamity unfolds, audiences are naturally turning to trusted online news sources.

Normally, large audiences generating record amounts of clicks is good for publisher finances, but the unpredictable nature of events plus a convoluted series of circumstances means that in many cases, the math doesn’t add up.

Publisher sources claim marketers’ brand safety concerns are leading media buyers to employ obtuse keyword blacklisting around coronavirus-related content—potentially the defining news event of the 2020s.

In the current climate, this caution creates difficulty for publishers to monetize its most popular content with programmatic buys, further compounding a widespread freeze on advertiser spend.

“Brands are obviously cautious about their messaging showing up next to content that could be perceived poorly by the consumer,” said Amanda Martin, vp of enterprise partnerships, at independent media agency Goodway Group. “Obviously, brands don’t want to be aligned with some of the unfortunate negative consequences of this pandemic, and so many try to avoid ‘coronavirus’ [as a keyword].”

Publishers and keyword caution

Content verification tools from companies such as DoubleVerify, Integral Ad Science and Oracle’s Grapeshot (part of Moat) have made efforts to categorize content, but they’re still feeling the financial impact of keyword blacklisting.

The ongoing coronavirus crisis is highlighting the issue, according to ad ops professionals from premium news outlets, many of whom spoke to Adweek in anonymity for candor.

“You have a lot of these ‘purpose-driven’ marketers tweeting about their brand purpose and pulling money from publishers while at the same time saying they want this [coronavirus] coverage to be free and accessible,” one source said.

Brand safety, and associated blacklisting keywords, arise in any challenging news cycle, The Atlantic’s CRO and publisher Hayley Romer said.

But brands, so far, seem to be focused on “the greater common good” and are communicating that—either through their own social feeds, or owned media properties—and not necessarily advertising around it.

“There’s no question advertising as we’re used to it is being impacted and there’s no question that our advertising business will be impacted—and extremely so—by what’s happening without a doubt,” Romer said, adding that it was too early to tell just what kind of impact it will have.

“Keyword blocking using blunt tools has taken blacklisting too far,” said Brendan Spain, vp of ads at The Financial Times, who summed up the hardship this poses for publishers. “This means that news content on sites with information that people that really need to know about can struggle to get funding.”

The difficulties with brand safety and automation

Several instances of ads being blocked by content verification providers on the homepage of titles such as The Wall Street Journal have caused social media spats among ad-tech industry observers recently.

Eager to deflect such criticisms, DoubleVerify and Integral Ad Science each published blog posts clarifying their content classification methodologies as the coronavirus news cycle gathered pace.

DoubleVerify COO Matt McLaughlin told Adweek some of the difficulties when a publisher’s ad request comes up against a blocked keyword. “Our first choice in those scenarios is always to send that ad opportunity back to the publisher for monetization because it could be a perfectly balanced opportunity for another advertiser,” he said.

However, in a programmatic environment, providers aren’t necessarily aware of exactly what type of article an ad will be served against. Add in how triggering another ad call can result in a lag in page-load time and devalue the user experience, and it’s not hard to see why people are looking for transparency.

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