Before most of the US was cooped up in its homes feverishly scrolling through news sites, overzealous leveraging of brand safety technology was ravaging online news, with advertisers far and wide trying to avoid anything and everything Trump. But now as digital news sites are witnessing record traffic, they’re struggling on the programmatic front because advertisers have blacklisted “coronavirus,” “pandemic,” “COVID-19” and any other related term. It’s causing premium journalism outlets real revenue harm during a moment when they’re more important than ever, and even agency trade association the 4A’s thinks the quest for brand safety has gone too far.
In a report with not the most straightforward title, the 4A’s comes out with the mind-blowing assertion that “trusted news content is brand safe.” Whoa—we’re going to need our fainting chair again, Jeeves! The trouble, which we’ve heard from others in the space, is moving the conversation from “block ‘em all” brand safety executions to more strategic brand suitability approaches—and the report contains several examples of the contrast between the two styles.
This all sounds nice, but we are a skeptical bunch here at AdMonsters, and brand suitability sounds like it requires more strategy than most media buyers want to put into the subject. Key here will be the standardization of “brand-suitability automation mechanisms,” which the 4A’s Advertising Protection Bureau is trying to focus on. (However, we all know the road to standards is full of gridlock.)
At the same time, we keep thinking about the high-quality audiences—many of whom are literally captive in their houses at the moment—advertisers with extreme brand safety settings are missing out on… And then thinking about how advertisers have to spend their marketing allowances, especially when those budgets could be shifted at any time in a down economy… Perhaps epiphanies are not far off?
Google Lifts Coronavirus Ad Ban
Google’s “Sensitive Events” policy blocks ads seeking to capitalize on short-term tragic events and take advantage of users. So it came as no surprise when Coronavirus and COVID-19 came rolling around that the pandemic would fall under those restrictions. Facebook and Twitter have similar practices in place, which also sucks for news outlets trying to distribute valuable information to people about the virus through social media.
These bans are an effort to stop the spread of misinformation, and in the case of Google, it also means that keyword blocking stops ads from running near any related content. That’s bad news for publishers who’ve seen an escalation in traffic due to their excellent coverage of the outbreak and with more people now working from home.
This is great news for pubs who’ve been unable to monetize content on Google’s platforms like YouTube or Google News. But even more important, pubs can expect to see more advertising coming through Google’s pipes again. Unfortunately, there’s also a downside—pubs are going to have to be extra diligent about ad quality as bad actors will use this as an opportunity to push Corona-based scams.
Last week The Information (subscription required) reported that Amazon and Walmart had temporarily suspended their affiliate marketing relationships with BuzzFeed, Vox Media, and Vice Media. Now Amazon has cut off third-party affiliate networks Skimlinks, Sovrn (through its VigLink business) and CJ Affiliate (once known and feared as Commission Junction).
This story is a one-two punch. Amazon and Walmart temporarily suspended direct affiliate campaigns due to strain in meeting essential supply deliveries during the pandemic. That’s a reliable revenue stream—reportedly 20% of BuzzFeed’s intake—that will be sorely missed in a dark moment. However, Amazon’s dismissal of third-party affiliate networks has been in the cards for a while and looks permanent.
Not surprising for a burgeoning walled garden and member of the Troika, Amazon wants more of the affiliate pie. It doesn’t seem like the greatest deal for publishers, which could seek more variety and control with a host of affiliate partners. But with more DTC businesses popping up in different verticals—many hoping to exploit quality control issues with Amazon sellers—there should still be a lot of affiliate revenue through third-party partners.
Can Paywalls Pay Off?
Paywalls are a very hot topic in the digital media industry. Should they even be implemented, and if so, what kind? This is especially true in the era of Coronavirus, as many publishers have been lifting paywalls on pandemic-related content. But some critics argue that this practice isn’t backed by good business sense.
In the case of The Atlantic though, it’s been nothing but a boost to business. In March, the site saw 87 million unique visitors and 187 million pageviews, according to NiemanLab. As an added bonus, all of that traffic brought 36,000 new subscribers to the company. To that tune, Slate has opted for a metered paywall after years of offering content to readers for free. And on the other side of the equation, the Miami Herald has reinstituted their paywall on most of their Coronavirus coverage, stating they were no longer in a financial position to give content away.
It’s looking like paywalls can pay off, especially when pubs let people sample some content for first. At AdMonsters, we’ve talked about pubs making up for lost advertising revenue by instituting some kind of subscription or membership service as an alternative strategy. As many consumers are currently strapped for cash, they may not be in a position to afford a full subscription so asking them to pay what they can—as The Guardian does—could end up doing a lot more for your bottom line right now than you think.
Depending on whom you ask, we’re already in a recession. And for those who remember the last one, which really wasn’t long ago, the advertising industry didn’t fare too well. Brands tend to slash their marketing budgets right when agencies argue for the importance of spending. Polar CEO and Founder Kunal Gupta decided to brush off the past and see what we could take away from advertising’s previous tangles with economic downturns.
Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it, philosopher George Santayana infamously said—but those that don’t heed the lessons of advertising during past recessions are likely to miss out on the opportunities that will enable survival. Gupta sees the biggest opportunity in creative, which we all know has been lagging for years.
Brands really should be tightening their relationships with trusted media and content partners. These creative “partnerships will focus on the development of content that is useful to consumers and for that content to be funded by brands in a tone-sensitive manner that trusted publishers are skilled at.”
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