The Art Of Balance: Consumers, Advertisers, And Publishers In An Era Of Brand Safety
The COVID-19 crisis has had an immense impact across the globe and has driven many second-order effects as a result of changing personal and workforce circumstances, including a dramatic shift in the role digital plays in our daily lives.
Internet consumption is up, and the hunger for clarity and transparency around the rapidly evolving COVID-19 situation has surged, with news sites seeing a 30% increase in page views since the crisis began.
The influx of content and readership, however, has not been matched by an increase in advertising spend. Why?
The most obvious factor is that many advertisers have chosen to temporarily pause strategies as they monitor and react to the continually unfolding crisis. The other factor, which could continue to challenge news publishers even as ad spend returns, is due to advertisers following the “brand safety playbook,” which has progressed over the last decade. Advertiser tools now give the ability to be hyper-precise about where ads are served. And because of these brand safety actions, a lot of content simply isn’t showing up now. In turn, this is leading to an imbalanced ecosystem among consumers, publishers, and advertisers during these uncertain times.
How Did We Get Here?
It is essential to remind ourselves of the transformation that has occurred in the news industry over the last two decades. In the 1990s, when newspaper circulation peaked at around 60% of the U.S. population, the trade-off between the publisher, advertiser, and consumer was simple: The consumer would pay for an entire newspaper, partially subsidized by ads and with distribution controlled by the publisher.
Fast forward through an era of immense digital disruption to today, and the news model has been completely upended and disaggregated. Eighty-nine percent of Americans now get at least some of their news online, and a much higher proportion of publisher revenue comes from advertising, driven via programmatic trading.
This has altered the relationships among consumers, publishers, and advertisers, and it has created an ecosystem that needs balance in order to thrive. As consumers’ demand for content increases, it creates an increase of supply in ad inventory. And as advertisers pay for this inventory, it creates the revenue publishers need to meet the content demands of consumers.
A Balanced Ecosystem
However, if just one part of this equation becomes imbalanced, so does the entire ecosystem. And today the industry is facing rapidly increasing consumer demand coupled with rapidly decreasing advertising spend.
What Is Happening?
The increased opacity and complexity of this environment has developed over the last 25 years of digital advertising, with advertising technology now often serving as an intermediary between brand advertisers and publishers, and consumers paying for content with their attention rather than with their wallets. This evolution has created positives, such as new modern media institutions producing more engaging and innovative content, but also negatives, such as the prevalence of ad fraudsters delivering nonviewable or fake ads and of “brand-unsafe” environments.
As digital advertising has matured, we have largely tackled and learned from past mistakes to restore trust in the ecosystem. The challenge, however, is that these solutions have largely been technological and have failed to properly reconnect the three parties in the ecosystem to drive and align shared goals and elevate the value received by everyone involved.
As the initial effects and impact of COVID-19 quickly became clear, the news content produced and consumed almost entirely shifted to focusing around this crisis. And many brands, relying on advertising technology, began choosing to block their ads from appearing next to this type of content at large. In fact, Integral Ad Science, a brand safety technology provider, reported a 2,125% surge in ad opportunities being blocked by brands, increasing from 64 million in February to 1.36 billion in March.
No advertising real estate has been safe; inventory blocked by advertisers even included the home page masthead of The New York Times. Now news publishers and industry bodies alike have been raising awareness of this issue. British publishers, American publishers, the Local Media Consortium, and the Australian IAB are all leading co-operative variations of “back, don’t block” campaigns to encourage brands to rethink and adapt their ad technology setups.
This is a move in the right direction and seems in line with those consuming the content. Research found that 78% of people report their sentiment of a brand would likely remain unchanged if they saw ads placed alongside COVID-19-related content. Adapting the tone and creating messaging is still essential as is understanding that some content or verticals are off-limits, particularly for the other 22% of consumers who do have a level of concern around the suitability of advertising right now. The real solution for advertisers is finding a balance and inserting a human decision-making element into what is a complex and rapidly changing situation.
Our mission as advertisers should be to connect great brands, products, and services to customers. This ultimately means allowing brands and premium content providers to reduce the technological silos that separate them to deliver relevant and engaging advertisements for consumers. The more we allow technology to reduce its prominence and become an enabler of strategy for these stakeholders, the more we will start to truly push advertising forward to deliver innovative, new experiences.
Bank of America is a great leader to observe when it comes to applying the human element to brand safety and premium inventory strategies more holistically. The organization took steps long before this current pandemic to outline a framework that others can adopt to create more synergies between news and advertising again. The leading financial services brand has made a public commitment to supporting quality journalism and has hired a chief brand safety officer and an SVP of enterprise media to “effectively traverse the martech landscape.” Lou Paskalis, the SVP of customer engagement and media investment at Bank of America, said in an interview with The Drum: “I would argue having my brand associated with The New York Times – producing something we see as an editorial product – is a net good thing.”
This is an ecosystem-wide challenge that will require an ecosystem-wide response. We can and should continue to break new ground on ensuring brands drive a more human response. A few moves we can all make:
• In the short term, we can adapt our messaging and strategies to adapt to the new normal, if we haven’t already.
• Brands and publisher partners can develop deeper, strategic relationships, collaborating to deliver innovative and integrated solutions that will delight customers, executed by technology.
• As a brand or publisher, understand your customers’ expectations so you can understand how to delight and optimize the experience, rather than just prevent negative outcomes.
• Clearly communicate your vision, message, and voice as a brand to your technology and service partners, rather than just performance expectations. This will enable them to proactively deliver and push their products to deliver your messages more effectively, rather than relying on traditional digital defaults.
Ultimately, this all starts with being able to have the conversations about using technology to deliver the desired outcome for brands and customers. Every brand will have different challenges, goals, and requirements. The more that can be done to allow them to be flexible in doing this will create a more effective ecosystem for all.