(Bloomberg) -- Readers are flocking to news sites for the latest on Covid-19. Advertisers are running the other way.
As news editors do everything to harness public interest in the worst public health crisis in more than a generation, their main source of income is in freefall, with brands pulling ads from news sites, papers and magazines.
To some extent that’s normal: With businesses hoarding cash just to stay afloat, marketing campaigns are a low priority. But a bad situation is being made a whole lot worse by advertising “blacklists” — sets of keywords that stop ads appearing next to certain categories of news that are considered a turn-off by brand managers. Because so much coverage now touches on coronavirus, one of the biggest stories of the century is turning into an advertising no-go zone.
The Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB), a trade group, surveyed U.S. web publishers in early April and found that news organizations were twice as likely to have ads blocked because of keyword blacklisting.
News executives, and even some advertising experts, say the lists can be arbitrary, unfair and often nonsensical: there’s little evidence that readers are less responsive to an ad for shampoo or a car hire service just because they’re sitting alongside a “bad news” story. What’s more, they’re killing news.
“We’re in danger of losing some of the most trusted publishers we have in the U.K. in the coming months,” said Tracey de Groose, executive chairman of British news industry marketing body Newsworks. “The unintended consequence of this is the commercial censorship of journalism.”
Newsworks calculated that Covid-19 blacklists are set to cost British news brands more than 50 million pounds ($61.7 million) in the next three months — a potential lifeline for newsrooms already slashing costs to survive. It said its members already lost 170 million pounds last year from an ever-growing list of common news words that brands avoid, such as “terrorism” and even “Brexit.”
Integral Ad Science Inc., one of a complex array of tech firms that influence where ads appear online, said marketers have begun to address the problem — specific coronavirus-related keyword blocking has fallen by 80% since mid-March in the U.S. and 77% in the U.K., according to IAS Chief Executive Officer Lisa Utzschneider. Prior to that, marketers requested blanket bans on ads appearing next to content with words like “coronavirus” or “pandemic.”
In the U.K., news organizations have spent more than a month lobbying ad executives to stop them blocking ads near virus coverage, and even drafted in the government to add its weight to the campaign, to little avail. There’s yet to be any rebound in income for publishers, said de Groose at Newsworks. That’s galling for news sites that have seen readership more than double in some content categories in Europe, according to audience data firm Comscore.
In a follow-up IAB survey last week, 18% of news publishers reported that blacklist restrictions had loosened in their second quarter planning. More than half said nothing had changed.
Companies that provide “brand safety” lists often use outdated terms and obscure how their keyword targeting works, said Nandini Jammi, a marketing industry advocate. “These are not made clear to advertisers,” she said. “Everyone is doing it. No one is thinking about it.”
At the other end of the chain, news publishers struggle to find out which brands are blocking what, making it harder to hold the brands to account. The companies that administer the ad blocking profit from each block, so have little incentive to help.
WPP agency GroupM said it’s trying to get brand marketing teams to making their blacklists more intelligent so more ads reach trusted news sources.
Rather than blocking “Covid-19,” they block a combination of words such as “Covid-19-Miracle Cure” or “Covid-19-Refrigerated Truck” so that ads don’t appear alongside irresponsible or particularly unpleasant news stories, said John Montgomery, the head of GroupM’s global brand safety practice.
“The technology is not the enemy,” he said. “It’s the way we use it.”
Unpicking the chain of arrangements that are pulling advertising away from news is complex because publishers are the last link in a vast online ecosystem. Digital ads are created by agencies at global companies such as WPP Plc and transmitted via technology platforms including Alphabet Inc.’s Google and intermediaries like IAS and DoubleVerify. An ad flows through a warren of automated marketplaces and is sold a split-second after you click a link to the page where you see it. A myriad of suppliers trade and verify the content, while others gather data to target it better.
It’s turned what used to be a simple agreement between a paper’s ad department and a brand marketing representative into an opaque process that’s dissipated responsibility and accountability.
Google rejects any blame for the boycott of Covid-related news, saying there are no technical or policy reasons to stop publishers monetizing coronavirus-related content on its platforms.
“We are in constant discussions with our publishing partners, advertisers and agencies on how we can continue to support a sustainable future for news,” said a Google spokesperson.
Ad dollars have been draining from the news business for a decade for reasons that reach beyond the pandemic, said Montgomery at GroupM. As the big social media platforms developed sophisticated filters to keep brands safe from harmful or toxic content, they’ve captured more of the ad dollars that once went to news. The result is that “media planners have been trained not to need news any more,” he said.
News organizations such as New York Times Co. and Nikkei Inc.’s Financial Times have cut dependence on ads by moving to reader subscriptions or memberships. Models are also emerging in which tech giants share more revenue, like Apple Inc.’s subscription News+ service or Facebook Inc’s agreement to pay trusted publishers.
Ad-funded news organizations pushed to the brink by the virus-induced ad slump are trying to innovate their way out of danger. Some publishers are pitching ad slots next to “good news” stories from the pandemic, relying on technology that can scan language and find the happier articles.
One of Britain’s biggest newspaper companies, Reach Plc, has teamed up with International Business Machines Corp. and AT&T Inc. to boost its language processing software and direct ads to these stories.
“Coronavirus articles that have a positive sentiment are good for your brand,” said Damon Reeve, chief executive officer of the Ozone Project, an ad platform set up in 2018 by several U.K. news publishers including the Telegraph and the Guardian.
For all those efforts, ad blacklists will be hard to banish as long as there are news themes that brands want to avoid.
“Yes, ‘coronavirus’ has been the number-one blocked keyword,” said IAS’s Utzschneider. “But before that, it was ‘Trump’.”
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