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.

“What we do is we provide a CSS overlay that doesn’t require another [ad] call, and can fill up any ad space, it doesn’t detract the user attention away from the content,” McLaughlin said. “It’s the best possible solution for publishers in the scenario where the ad that they’ve sold to an advertiser ultimately does not meet their standards.”

Tony Marlow, CMO at Integral Ad Science, said keyword blacklisting should have a place in marketers’ playbooks, but recommended they also use cognitive semantic technology to assure brand safety is provided while continuing to support publishers.

“This kind of technology can help guide brands to where they do, and do not, want to be,” he said. “For a brand that says, ‘I don’t want to be near negative sentiment coronavirus content’ this technology can help facilitate that, but there may be stories around the crisis about good Samaritans [this technology can find] that might be more appropriate for some brands.”

A question of incentives?

So while efforts to better help content verification tools contextualize are underway and often governed by complex, technical standards, the issue can also boil down to incentives for some.

Marc Guldimann, CEO of ad-tech company Adelaide, said, “Brand safety companies will likely cite the amount they have to block because as a net positive for advertisers in terms of clawing back spend. Rather than doing keyword blocking, it makes sense to have a more sophisticated approach whereby you would never block a homepage of The Wall Street Journal, or The New York Times.”

Scott Cunningham, an ad-tech consultant and founder of the IAB Tech Lab, also observed that the accuracy of an appropriate ad being served, or inappropriately served, can depend on how closely ad tech is integrated with a publisher’s tech stack. “The closer a vendor is integrated to the publisher the better they’ll analyze the content and meta-information associated with it,” he said.

While all sources said positive movements are happening around keyword blocking and more nuanced ad serving, media agencies note how the process of tagging such content takes a lot of manual work. The associated complications can lead media agencies, who often shoulder the blame for campaign mishaps, to err on the side of caution when it comes to brand safety–oftentimes at the behest of their clients.

The current scenario led one ad ops source at a premium publisher to quip, “You go into agencies and they say that you’re not on any blocklists, but you know that’s just not the case.”

For all the technical complexities involved with the issue of keyword blocking and online safety, a March 2020 online survey of 1,042 U.S. internet users from Integral Ad Science demonstrates the emotive nature of advertisers appearing next to hot-button news topics with consumer opinion clearly divided on the matter.

For instance, 22% of respondents said it is unsuitable for a brand to appear near coronavirus content, while 78% claimed their sentiment toward brands with ads adjacent to coronavirus content would be unchanged. Although, perhaps most tellingly, 26% of respondents said they are unlikely to engage with an ad adjacent to coronavirus content in any way.


@andrewblustein andrew.blustein@adweek.com Andrew Blustein is a programmatic reporter at Adweek.
@ronan_shields ronan.shields@adweek.com Ronan Shields is a programmatic reporter at Adweek, focusing on ad-tech.
@SaraJerde sara.jerde@adweek.com Sara Jerde is publishing editor at Adweek, where she covers traditional and digital publishers’ business models. She also oversees political coverage ahead of the 2020 election.
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