Brands that won’t advertise against hard news harm themselves, as well as journalism

Mick Loizou Senior Director EMEA Product Marketing

By Mick Loizou Michail, Snr. Director Product Marketing EMEA at Verizon Media. First published in English on June 23, 2020 in Marketing Week

Brands miss the opportunity to be seen: news sites of premium publishers are a trustworthy advertising environment in which consumers move very consciously and attentively.

There has been a lot of debate about keyword blocking and keeping ads off news sites during the current pandemic. But even as we see countries beginning to open up again, brands miss out on being seen in a trusted environment where consumers are showing huge engagement and intent if they aren’t ensuring their ads get seen within premium news publishers.

As a marketing community, there has been a lot of discussion recently about keyword ad blocking with many organisations and publishers highlighting this as a serious issue for revenue to publishers if advertisers pull ads during a crisis. But it’s far from solved, and actually has ramifications for advertisers as well as publishers that will continue as restrictions ease and marketers begin to think about spending again. 

In any case, it’s time to rethink the value of news and quality journalism. During the coronavirus crisis, people are consuming news at a rate that we haven't seen for a very long time. They’re seeking out content, and in particular they're seeking out up-to-date insight into their world.

Yet against the backdrop of a global pandemic, where it has become more important than ever for the public to arm themselves with accurate, reliable information, advertisers are inadvertently harming themselves by shying away from it. Not only that, they are endangering a wider news ecosystem that's already hurting.

Premium publishers are seeing inevitable drops in demand from advertisers scaling back their budgets, but this is also being compounded by keyword blocking and a general aversion to advertising against news and Covid-related stories. So while consumers are actively searching for this content, brands are avoiding it, and it is threatening the ad-funded model for widely available, high-quality journalism.

Irrational fear of negative stories

It’s an understandable reaction, however it’s also a knee-jerk one. Marketers have become chastened by brand safety scandals and there’s a blanket fear about being associated in any way with negative content and controversial subjects. But consumers’ own attitudes and behaviour suggest this fear is also irrational.

Alongside the huge numbers of people reading content about the defining issue of our age, Verizon’s global research shows consumers are perfectly happy for brands to advertise against news reporting  including content about coronavirus. What’s more, 91% of consumers are saying they want to hear from brands they trust during the pandemic, and with 29%  preferring to receive those messages in trusted news environments rather than social media.

The likes of the IAB, ISBA and major agency holding groups have also pointed out the dangers of excessive keyword blocking around news stories.

News content drives intent

When brands aren’t advertising against news it often means they’re doing so on social media. But social media and brand safety aren’t necessarily aligned.  It’s clear that fake news around coronavirus has been a problem, and much of that misinformation and unverified speculation has been shared on social platforms through user-generated content. That’s why people have flocked to the trusted sources of traditional journalism for their news. The increased favourability towards advertising on news sites is largely down to that association of trust.  

There’s obviously a role for social media in brands’ plans, but consumers actively seek out and are more likely to trust content from verified news sources, and are actually more likely to engage with and remember advertising within premium content environments.  

Aside from the irrationality of avoiding advertising against news content when it’s both wide-reaching and trusted, there are smarter ways to filter out unwanted associations on news platforms. Keyword blocking tools have become so much more sophisticated that it is self-defeating for brands to take the ‘easy option’ of blocking news altogether. Likewise, there is a wealth of feel-good content being produced which many consumers are looking for which may be blocked simply because it uses a word like ‘coronavirus’ to set the scene and contextualise the editorial. 

There's also a tendency to think that social media can reach more people. Actually, there are huge audiences across news environments that are unduplicated on even the biggest social platforms. A lot of brands default to the idea that they’ve got to be on Facebook, Instagram and Google, so they build their creative around them, then worry that it could be onerous to extend their campaigns outside them. But when you work with partners like Verizon Media, our platforms can take the same creative and adapt it, so your Instagram Stories formats can reach people that Instagram isn't reaching - with the same creative, as one example. 

More ‘experiential’ advertising required

Experiential advertising is more important than ever. On our platforms, such as Yahoo! News and HuffPost, we’ve set up a specific content segment to cover feel-good stories, which is targetable via our DSP. This is inspirational content that creates positive experiences for consumers and also supports advertisers. 59% of consumers report maintaining a positive mindset as their main priority during the crisis and advertising has the power to enable this.

This might run counter to the thinking of many brands, who, in a downturn, feel the need to push sales-focused messages. However, it's simply not the right time. The way brands market should be more experience-focused as many consumers don’t want to be sold to at the moment, or don’t need to be because their buying habits have changed so drastically. Some brands have responded by stopping advertising altogether. But that's not what consumers want. A recent Kantar study found that just 8% of consumers in 30 countries thought that stopping advertising should be a priority for brands. Instead, brands that continue advertising through a crisis like this come out stronger. Focusing on emotions, positivity and brand-building through great experiences, rather than direct sales, can be the solution.

There’s another more practical reason brands should shift to a more experiential tone, rather than ceasing advertising, and that relates to the coming need to find targeting solutions that replace cookies. Over this year and next, Google will phase out third-party cookies from its Chrome browser, joining Safari and Firefox, with huge implications for cross-site tracking. By ceasing activity now, marketers will not only miss out on the chance to understand and influence the advertising industry’s technical solutions, but also the opportunity to future-proof  their first-party consumer data for the future.

Marketers must take a keen interest in their media buying

Not everything should be laid at the door of marketers. While brands ultimately control their media budgets, their media agencies have significant influence on how these are spent.

But when it comes to practices like keyword blocking and blacklisting, marketers do need to look out for their own interests. Make sure you're engaging your agencies: ask them what their standard brand safety practices are, what solutions they provide and challenge them if they have default settings for all brands that they work with. Ultimately, every brand has its own unique positioning, its own target audience, and its own set of brand values. The safety and suitability protections an agency partner  enables on your behalf should reflect those specific conditions.

If you are concerned, be prescriptive. If you want to make sure you are advertising in news, there are many ways to do it and remain brand-safe. For example, advertisers should consider exempting trusted news providers from keyword blocklists. They can also add trusted news site homepages and section pages to page exception lists.  You may still not want to show up against certain topics, and the technology allows you to be sophisticated about that, through a growing list of content classification categories.