Digital Publishing Guest Columns
4 mins read

News in the age of COVID-19: How journalism can combat blunt brand safety


If ever there was a time that proved the importance of quality journalism, this is it. The global disruption and uncertainty sparked by COVID-19 has resulted in 69% of Brits turning to trusted news outlets for reliable information and guidance. Yet while publishers are experiencing a surge in online traffic, this is not being matched with relevant advertising.

While most brands understand the value of association with trusted content, many are wary of placing ads beside content referencing the crisis; which, right now, means much of the internet, and especially the news. In fact, it is estimated that ramped-up brand safety efforts could end up costing UK newspapers and magazines up to £50 million in lost digital ad revenue.

With consumers turning to credible and trusted publishers in greater numbers for reassurance and information during this difficult period, it’s important they are protected, but growing efforts to safeguard brand reputation have unintentionally hampered this. However, taking a more subtle and thoughtful approach to the type of content that is suitable will ensure both publishers and advertisers keep thriving.

Warp speed: mass blocking acceleration

The initial outbreak saw understandable advertising hesitation, with brands unsure how to navigate the uncharted waters and conscious of their online image holding back on ad placements. But as strategies have evolved, there has been a marked increase in blanket measures such as full-scale blocking of COVID-19 content.

It’s not hard to understand the reasoning behind this shift. Brands already sensitive to digital threats — such as fake news and misinformation — are keen to minimise all risk of negative association by avoiding any potentially divisive content. Yet indiscriminate blocking is not only limiting advertising options, but also the revenue news sites need to keep producing the critical content audiences rely on.

The key here is understanding the difference between brand safety and brand suitability. This requires a collective shift towards understanding the importance of context, and the sentiment of an article, and how this is a more valuable way to align messaging than simply seeing all content containing certain words as negative. Creative messaging should also not be overlooked, for example, with many brands echoing the ‘stay home’ message, having images showing people in crowds or in close proximity is likely not the right ad to have next to content about social distancing and Covid-19.

Are keywords the root of it all?

Typically, digital advertising defences revolve around keywords that are used to target ads away from harmful content. But the blunt nature of this approach plays a large part in content blocking challenges. There is nuance in the meaning of words within content, including the news, and automatically writing off content unnecessarily caps revenue for both brands and publishers.

Analysis of Peer39 data, for example, shows the COVID-19 situation is a perfect illustration of the limitations basic keywords create. Assessment of over 450 million unique web pages classified daily reveals 1 in 5 register as coronavirus content, which would be blocked using common safety mechanisms. Yet when that content is assessed using intelligent contextual evaluation where negative and positive mentions are differentiated, buyers could unlock more than 40% is viable for valuable ad placements.

Content assessment needs refinement

As well as providing a key public service, news content accounts for nearly one out of every five targetable ad impressions online, making advertising investment vital on multiple counts. What’s needed to help publishers and advertisers work together more effectively, is a more granular way of determining the suitability of digital content.

Focus on building solutions is increasing. Peer39, for instance, has partnered with NewsGuard to give an extra layer of targeting protection to help advertisers stay safe while keeping their options open. Access to NewsGuard’s Coronavirus Misinformation Tracking Centre provides an avenue for advertisers to run on news sites deemed “brand safe”, informed by journalists. This helps advertisers tell the difference between appropriate, high-quality news and undesirable stories so they don’t have to cut off opportunities or critical publisher revenue.

So far, the shift to overzealous content blocking has sent the industry in a hazardous direction, but it’s never too late to switch tack. As recognition grows that generic keywords aren’t refined enough for the subtleties of digital content, greater emphasis on uncovering the real meaning of words is presenting a path to better brand safety protection in the age of coronavirus, and beyond. Now more than ever, the collective industry priority should be collaborating to find a way through the COVID-19 crisis that ensures digital media can keep offering value, especially when it’s needed most.

Mario Diez
CEO, Peer39

About: Peer39 is an independent data company that provides the largest data set available in the digital advertising ecosystem. Every day, the industry’s leading brands, agencies and publishers trust Peer39’s AI-powered semantic analysis engine to provide a holistic understanding of page content, meaning, and sentiment. We do this by analysing the relationship between words on a page, the content of a video, or in an app, ensuring appropriate classification.

About: NewsGuard provides credibility ratings and detailed “Nutrition Labels” for thousands of news and information websites that account for 95% of online engagement across the U.S., U.K., Germany, France, and Italy. NewsGuard employs journalists to rate each site based on nine apolitical criteria of journalistic practice, including whether a site repeatedly publishes false content, whether it regularly corrects or clarifies errors, and whether it avoids deceptive headlines. Based on the criteria, each site receives a trust score of 0-100 and an overall rating of “Green,” indicating the site is generally reliable, or “Red,” indicating that it is not reliable.