Why you shouldn’t be afraid of advertising next to coronavirus-related content

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A dramatic change in media pricing

In our coronavirus update to our annual Inflation Report, we revealed that an increased supply of inventory, teamed with decreased advertiser spending, will likely lead to dramatic deflation in the cost of traditional media across the world.  Although not as dramatic, digital media are also seeing price drops in EMEA and North America (although they are more buoyant in APAC), as programmatic media adjusts directly to changes in offer and demand. However, there is an additional trend reducing the price drop for digital: the use of programmatic blacklists to block terms associated with coronavirus. A reduced drop in pricing might sound like good news for the digital media industry, but the blacklisting trend is having a dramatic impact on digital publishers.

Brands are blocking coronavirus-related keywords

Consumers living in lockdown are turning to digital channels to stay updated on the news and for entertainment – with increased eyeballs, it would seem to be the perfect time for advertisers to build awareness of their brands and their products. But many of them are squeamish about coronavirus-related content, and are turning to keyword blocking as a way of safeguarding their brands from appearing alongside content related to the pandemic – good or bad. Ad verification firm Integral Ad Science estimates that blacklisting during the pandemic has kept more than 1.3 billion ads from appearing next to content featuring the world ‘coronavirus’ – and that doesn’t include other terms such as ‘covid-19’ and ‘pandemic’. Of course, the pandemic has affected every aspect of society – healthcare, of course, but also the economy, work, sport, home life and retail – which means that ‘coronavirus’ appears in almost every news article published. The loss of ad revenue that comes from blocking coronavirus-related keywords is devastating for online publishers, to the extent that the future of many is at risk. This would be a huge blow not just for them, but for the many advertisers for whom appearing alongside high-quality journalism forms an important part of their advertising strategies.

A nuanced approach will keep your brand safe and allow you to benefit from larger audiences

A blanket approach to blacklisting is not necessary in this context. The IAB has been working to combat this practice, providing guidance to advertisers around how they can keep their brands safe and avoid embarrassment, whilst still supporting quality journalism and benefiting from the hugely increased and highly engaged audiences. The approach that the IAB recommends is pragmatic, harnessing tools and techniques which allow a multi-faceted, more nuanced approach, for example incorporating semantic and contextual solutions. More sophisticated tools can identify the context of an article: a news story that talks about local heroism or how to juggle working with home schooling will still mention coronavirus, but is a much safer context than a story that talks about the number of deaths in care homes, for example. Indeed, a more nuanced and thought-through approach regarding the selection of ad environments has always been advisable. As with domain lists, it is typically most efficient to focus on defining and selecting desirable environments and partners (whitelists) rather than the undesirable ones (blacklists). Domain and keyword blacklisting should be part of a strategy, rather than a strategy in itself; there is limited value in the longtail of domains in any case.

Add value for consumers by adapting messaging and creative

Messaging and creative is also important. A lot of the news right now is bad, but by striking the right tone, ads can add value to the reader’s experience. An appropriate tone could mean being helpful, providing products or services that benefit consumers, not exploiting the situation, offering reassurance or showcasing, with modesty, how you have helped. Global research carried out by by Kantar shows that the vast majority – 92% – of consumers do not expect brands to stop advertising during the pandemic.

Burger King: getting the balance right

Burger King is a great example of a brand that is getting the balance right. It rapidly adapted its messaging and creative as the virus spread, focusing on contactless food delivery and pick-up, which means its marketing doesn’t seem out of place in a news cycle that is relentlessly focused on the pandemic and on the lockdown restrictions across the world. As Burger King’s Head of Brand and Communications, Marcelo Pascoa, told The New York Times, ‘It isn’t damaging for the brand to appear within the context of the crisis, because the brand is playing a role’.  Global CMO Fernando Machado, agrees, telling DigiDay, ‘Instead of relying on a block list, I would personally rather have us focus on making sure that whatever we put forward takes into consideration the context and that’s exactly what we did… We’re more relaxed about that because of the content we’re putting forward’. The company’s media strategy also reflects the different situation in each market: with restaurants closed in France, it doesn’t make sense to have TV, so investment has been focused on digital to keep engagement high, while in the US restaurants are still open for drive-through and delivery, so TV is more relevant.

Larger, more engaged digital audiences

There is huge value to be gained for brands who are willing to take a more nuanced approach to blacklisting. Digital audiences are much larger and much more engaged than normal, but prices are falling because of decreased demand from industries, such as travel and automotive, struck hardest by the pandemic. Now is a great time for brands who are in a position to spend to grow their share of voice and share of market by making the most of the increased value and appearing alongside quality news content which is attracting huge numbers of eyeballs. Premium placements with trusted news organizations are a great option as they are more likely to appear alongside thoughtful, less alarmist journalism.

Helping you to successfully navigate a new media landscape

It’s natural for brands to be more cautious in a global crisis such as this, with so much economic uncertainty making expensive brand safety errors something to be avoided at all costs. But at ECI Media Management we believe that this is an opportunity for those with budget to spend to benefit from increased return on investment. We’ll continue to provide forensic analysis and actionable insights so our clients can successfully navigate a media landscape that has transformed beyond all recognition, and plan their media activity during this crisis and beyond.

Read and download the Coronavirus Update to our Inflation Report here.

Discover our top 10 recommendations for advertisers during the coronavirus pandemic here.

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Image: Anton Veselov/Shutterstock

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