Ad-Tech Companies Say They Aren’t Hurting Despite Prevalent Coronavirus Blacklisting

Publishers are facing lower CPMs due to rampant keyword blocking

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Key insights:

Thanks to strict advertiser blacklists, news publishers have historically struggled to monetize open inventory on so-called “hard news,”and coronavirus coverage is no exception. The ad-tech companies powering publishers’ sites, however, are finding it’s mostly business as usual.

Advertisers have blacklisted “coronavirus” and, according to Integral Ad Science, the term was the second most blocked keyword in February in the U.S., having been blocked over 38 million times across news domains last month. It was the eighth-most blocked term in January on news domains at nearly 8.5 million instances.

However, multiple ad-tech firms told Adweek they haven’t felt a notable hit to their bottom lines despite news outlets seeing lower CPMs on their coverage of the virus.

“Coronavirus has not materially impacted our business, at least yet, in terms of spend levels, bidding behavior or marketer investments,” said Joseph Leichman, vp of buyer development at OpenX.

Sean Buckley, COO of SpotX, is seeing the travel category take the biggest hit as airlines, hotel chains and cruise companies suspend ad campaigns.

“We’ve seen a few small changes from advertisers in other categories to date, but the impact has been very minimal thus far,” Buckley said.

Platforms on both the buy- and sell-side aren’t solely reliant on monetizing coronavirus-related content, so they can find their take-rates elsewhere. But news sites that are dedicating more and more coverage to the epidemic are seeing a drop in CPMs.

Ameet Shah, vp of publisher operations and tech strategy at Prohaska Consulting, said ad-tech companies may see a dip in bidding or revenue, but that shouldn’t amount to a material change for their businesses. He said keyword blocking will put more of a strain on news sites.

One source from a leading current affairs title, who requested anonymity due to their employer’s communications policies, said the problems with blacklisting coronavirus are typical of the challenges involved with ad tech.

“These are absolutely the most engaging stories that tip the scales for all of the other statistics,” they said.

Per the source, their publication is generating 25% more ad views per page than average, but advertisers are wary of following the eyeballs.

“People are actually reading very long stories and staying on pages for a very long time with anything around coronavirus,” they said. “But at the same time, our CPMs are 15% lower. … So it drives you insane a little bit.”

For many publishers, it’s hard to attribute a drop in CPMs to keyword blocking due to the opaqueness of the digital advertising supply chain.

David Kohl, CEO of programmatic marketplace TrustX, said it’s “impossible to tell” how much of a decline in ad buying is due to keyword blocking.

“We can’t tell for sure how much is not coming through because of coronavirus, because keyword blocking happens before it even hits the [supply-side platform],” Kohl said.

A brand or agency will typically work with a brand safety vendor to create their suitability parameters and either allow or disallow certain terms, like coronavirus. Demand-side platforms can’t see those blacklisted terms because they’re enabled by a different vendor.

Kohl said advertisers should favor a more nuanced approach that analyzes the context of a site instead of using catch-all blacklists, which he described as a “blunt instrument approach… that ultimately could threaten the viability of news.”

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