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Coronavirus Technology

Covid-19 heats up the race to combat advertising’s keyword blocking problem


By Rebecca Stewart, Trends Editor

April 30, 2020 | 8 min read

With publishers braced for an intense revenue squeeze in the next calendar year, industry trade bodies and governments are now wading into the keyword blocking debate in a bid to ensure the survival of the news industry.

Covid-19 heats up the race to combat advertising’s keyword blocking problem

Covid-19 heats up the race to combat advertising’s keyword blocking problem

2020 has seen a shift in tone in the conversations marketers are having with their media agencies about ad misplacement. Over the last 12 months, the debate has evolved from brand safety fears on YouTube and Facebook to questions about whether premium publishers are brand-suitable.

Following YouTube’s infamous ‘brands funding terror’ scandal of 2017, advertisers flocked in their droves to enlist automated tech to stop their ads from appearing around unsavoury terms. This blanket approach has resulted in everything from ‘sex’ to ‘Game of Thrones’, ‘Mike Tyson’ and ‘shoot’ to appear on blacklists of terms brands don’t want their pristine creative to flash up next to.

It’s an approach that’s problematic for a multitude of reasons. At a very base level, it creates a deficit for newsrooms and stops brands from reaching valuable eyeballs. There’s also the impact it’s having on LGBT journalism.

Now, despite record readership figures, UK newspapers stand to lose as much as £50m in online ad revenue thanks to the blacklisting of words relating to coronavirus – such as ‘pandemic’ and Covid-19’. Fresh data from the Advertising Association (AA) and Warc published on Thursday (30 April) also paints a bleak outlook for publishers for the rest of the year, projecting a decrease in revenue of 20.5% for national news brands, 24.1% for regional news brands and 25.1% for magazine brands. The drops are starker than TV, which is forecast to see a 19.8% fall and VOD which will see a drop of 6.3%.

Earlier this month, such forecasts propelled the UK culture secretary Oliver Dowden to plead with marketers to rethink coronavirus keyword blocking: “I am asking companies and the advertising industry to act and do all they can to resolve this issue,” he said, explaining that he’d written to 100 household brands in the UK to urge them to review their policies and check they weren’t “inappropriately” blocking ads from appearing next to news providing a vital public service.

Industry trade bodies quickly backed the government’s call, with the Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB UK), the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA) and the Incorporated Society of British Advertisers (Isba) jointly urging brands to reassess their brand safety measures last week.

With the future of British publishers at stake, the industry has pooled together to seize the opportunity to battle keyword blocking once and for all. However, with The Drum learning that Covid-19 terminology even found its way onto the blocklist for the government’s official NHS pandemic communications (an error quickly rectified by its media agency) it’s clear the issue runs deep.

So will a cross-industry approach be enough to convince advertisers to walk the line between ensuring revenue without compromising on limiting the potential for reputational damage?

An action-focused approach

Tracy De Groose, chief executive of national news publisher trade body News Works says lockdown is giving the industry some pause for thought about what it can do better when normality resumes. She’s spearheading a ‘Back, Not Block’ campaign which has seen UK newspapers join forces to encourage brand spend at this trying time.

“Conversations around keyword blocking are getting more action-focused and that’s a really good thing,” she tells The Drum.

“Publishers are writing about the one story that everyone wants to hear, in the UK we’re seeing 34 million people read our journalism every day and yet so much inventory is blocked because coronavirus-related terms are on brands' blacklists. Go figure – that doesn’t make sense, but I think there’s growing momentum and support to change that.”

To help brands along the way, the IAB, Isba and the IPA, along with Newsworks and the Association for Online Publishers (AOP) are asking advertisers to liaise with their content verification providers to ensure they’re not inadvertently blocking relevant, safe content. The trade bodies have together published a nine-point guide with updated guidance on ways to manage keyword blocking during the Covid-19 crisis.

Tips include reviewing existing keyword blocklists and setting up direct relationships with publishers to understand the safety and suitability messages they’re taking. A big focus has also been placed on working with verification providers to get a handle on their systems and how their tools adapt within different contexts.

Indeed, three brand safety companies – DoubleVerify, Integral Ad Science and Oracle Data Cloud – are also among those making a coordinated effort to combat the problem, warning brands against the use of a "blanket approach or overzealous use of keyword blocking".

For the IAB’s Tina Lakhani, who was recently appointed as its first head of adtech, the involvement of these companies in addressing coronavirus keyword blocking is critical.

“Not only are content verification providers working with advertisers to help them understand how their technology works, they’re also reaching out to publishers to make sure they’re aware too. Publishers need to know how to use reporting tools so they can be sure they’re making the right use of data and guarantee their content isn’t miscategorised or help them contact clients who are actively blocking.”

For some advertisers, Lakhani points out, it simply doesn’t make sense to advertise against coronavirus content. “In the case of a funeral brand it’s never going to be right for them and there are plenty of other examples.”

She explains that there are other obstacles to overcome too.

“Brand safety control and techniques are really important for brands in allowing them to maintain their respect and reputation online. We don’t want to take away the ability for brands to manage their safety online or force them run ads against Covid-19 content, because what they might do is cut their budgets instead. These things will make it hard to measure how our approach is working. Keyword blocking is just a part of the problem, publishers are losing money for other reasons too.”

Context is key

Context will be key in getting advertisers to refine their approach to brand safety. Recent data from Verity, a machine learning-based content analysis and brand safety engine, offers some insight into just how much ‘safe’ content advertisers are actually blocking at the moment.

The company claims that the majority of online content containing keywords related to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic is actually safe for brand advertising. Between 25 March and 6 April, Verity identified 2.85m unique pages containing Covid-related keywords across its publisher network. Of those pages, the system’s threat detection models classified 62% as ‘safe’.

“By taking a blunt approach to blocking this content, brands are needlessly denying themselves access to vast viable ad inventories and costing publishers millions in lost revenue,” argues Peter Wallace, UK commercial director at Verity’s owner GumGum.

“What advertisers need to do is take a more open approach to their keyword-based safety strategies,” he adds.

“They should get a clear understanding of what their threshold is for coronavirus news and take advantage of contextual brand safety solutions that can analyse the nuance and context of individual web pages in real-time, and spot what’s genuinely a threat and what is relevant and suitable for the brand.”

This more sophisticated approach, Wallace argues, will afford advertisers the opportunity to support quality journalism and increase publisher CPMs, while also giving brands a greater ability to deliver successful campaigns.

Lakhani is just a few days into her new job at the IAB but she doesn’t see the debate around blacklisting and brand safety as one that’s going anywhere fast. Her next move will be to engage the wider industry, including tech platforms, in the discussion.

“This is an opportunity to show how big of an issue it is and underscore the importance of journalism. It will continue to be a big part of the work that we do along with our cross-industry partners."

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