The coronavirus is disrupting all aspects of our lives. Add one more: The symbiotic relationship between digital advertisers and news sources is suffering a major shock at a time when we desperately need trusted information.
According to the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, less than 20% of U.S. digital news consumers pay for a news subscription. Online news sites depend on revenue from the $130 billion U.S. digital advertising market to fund their production and publication. Advertisers, in turn, depend on news sites to lend audience and credibility to the ad content published on their sites. (Editor’s note: Fastcompany.com does not presently have a paywall and derives revenue from advertising.)
Right now, both industries are suffering. News outlets across the U.S. are facing extremely difficult circumstances while the advertising industry is confronting serious challenges as a result of a public that’s spending and earning less.
This dynamic alone is enough to threaten the foundation of digital news. Making matters worse, at a time when consumers are seeking reassurance from advertisers in response to the pandemic, advertisers themselves have forfeited some of their best opportunities to communicate with consumers by blocking their ads from appearing next to virus-related stories. Under normal circumstances, blocking is a routine practice that keeps advertisers away from unsuitable content—a car dealership, for example, would not want to advertise next to a story about a car accident. In a news environment dominated by one all-encompassing story, blunt-blocking coronavirus content effectively cuts off advertisements from all news content at a time when audiences are paying rapt attention to the pandemic—costing news outlets money they simply can’t afford to lose right now.
Advertisers and publishers can help each other navigate their respective industry downturns and more effectively reach their intended audiences if they use this moment to understand what’s really driving audience attention and respond accordingly.
In a recent consumer study conducted by my company, respondents made clear that audiences were receptive to appropriate advertising from a range of industries while consuming coronavirus-related content. In other words, there is broad public permission for advertising adjacent to pandemic coverage.
As economies begin to reopen in states around the U.S., this is a critical time for advertisers to communicate with customers. Advertisers can proactively determine the sources and contexts of pandemic-related content that they are comfortable advertising alongside. Underlying factors such as the sentiment within an article and the publication’s credibility—two factors that newer advertising technology solutions can account for—impact audiences’ attitudes toward advertising as much as or more than broad subject matter. The good news is that much of the quality news coverage out there right now is both widely consumed and brand-safe.
I know from experience that a technology-led approach is the best way for advertisers to navigate an economic downturn. I ran ad sales for Amazon during the Great Recession, when a massive decrease in consumer spending led to a commensurate decrease in advertising spending, which in turn hurt publisher revenue.
Digital advertising, buoyed by ad-tech solutions that optimized reach, targeting, and veracity, helped to fuel the advertising industry’s ensuing recovery as both publishers and advertisers rallied around an improving economy, an audience that spent more time on digital platforms, and rising trust in digital ads.
Publishers can further buoy an effective response to this crisis by collaborating with stakeholders across the digital advertising space, to enable the spread of reliable information through advertising content. One great example is the Ad Council partnership, where publishers have led with ad marketplaces to create, fund, and place public service announcements about the coronavirus, filling some of the inventory that would otherwise be blocked from appearing next to coronavirus-related content.
Such collaborations amplify publishers’ work and credibility by amplifying the spread of vital information, such as a series of banner ads that feature a call to action linking viewers to the World Health Organization’s website showing best practices for personal and public safety during the pandemic. Efforts such as these can be especially impactful because they leverage the capabilities of every digital news industry stakeholder to bring vital information to an interested audience, while also filling advertising inventory, driving up demand and revenue for publishers.
In facilitating robust, accurate coverage of the coronavirus pandemic, both publishers and advertisers are providing a vital public service that also serves their own commercial interests. By leaning in with smart ad placements and collaborating to promote the spread of vital information, each industry can support the other in ways that strengthen their interests for the long term.
Lisa Utzschneider is CEO of Integral Ad Science, a privately owned digital ad verification company that specializes in issues surrounding fraud, viewability, and brand risk for publishers, advertisers, and agencies.