Twin News Cycles Accelerate The Transition From Brand Safety To Suitability

Mario Diez headshot"Data-Driven Thinking" is written by members of the media community and contains fresh ideas on the digital revolution in media.

Today’s column is written by Mario Diez, CEO at Peer39.

Our country is currently gripped by two nation-altering storylines, the likes and scale of which our modern news media has never seen. COVID-19 is so all-encompassing that the story has touched all content verticals since March, extending well beyond the news and health categories to sports, entertainment, finance and business coverage. And since late May, the Black Lives Matter movement has been equally prevalent across online content, ranging from educational pieces, book recommendations and news on peaceful demonstrations to coverage of riots, violence and police brutality.

Many have noted that Zoom was forced through a decade’s worth of innovation in three months after Americans began using it en masse while working from home. The scale at which these twin news cycles have impacted content has forced a similar rate of evolution in the brand suitability conversation.

Buying programmatic ad space within almost any category right now requires moving beyond the outmoded idea of safety and identifying the suitable content that fits the brand. These two massive news cycles – which continue to this day – are rewriting the rules, forcing every brand to reconsider its guidelines and test new brand suitability measures.

Suitability vs. safety

The impact of COVID-19 on media, specific to brand safety, provides the first true test case of a new era of suitability. Prior to COVID-19, brands typically implemented safety measures in their programmatic buys by blocking content categories, keywords or entire domains. The prevalence of COVID-19 content across every category made brands realize that if they wanted to completely avoid the topic in their media buys, they weren’t going to deliver on campaigns.

This forced a new perspective: Brands wanted to steer clear of the coronavirus because they felt it wasn’t safe or suitable, but we learned quickly that not all COVID-19 content is bad content. There is a difference between stories about death tolls and remote work or parenting while under quarantine. As GroupM’s Joe Barone points out, keyword blocking early in the COVID-19 news cycle meant that good and bad content was being blocked, so advertisers were pulling away from content exactly when impressions and traffic were surging.

The credibility of a news publication also matters when assessing brand suitability. A 4A's report showed that engagement is much higher on high-quality news sites than lower ones, highlighting that news category avoidance is cutting out valuable inventory.

By simply adjusting their targeting to include suitability strategies, as opposed to standard legacy blocking, brands would likely find worthwhile, engaging inventory within categories that they might have been blocking.

Confidence in news content

Now, we’ve seen these same lessons resurface during coverage of the Black Lives Matter movement. There is protest-related content that is both positive and negative. For example, legacy tactics block out anything that mentions “protest.” Many cut ad spend or aggressively blocked keywords that they feared would be controversial or unsuitable for their brand content. Others applied the strategies they learned in late March and moved straight to combined suitability and keyword plans.

For the news category, brands want assurance that their message is not aligned with questionable content. But the biggest challenge that many brands face is whether or not their creative message is suitable next to content about protests, peaceful or not. The “in these uncertain times” copy is now overused and brands need to come across as authentic. As much as the media buying conversation focuses on safety or suitability, the equally important piece is the message and whether it is authentic enough to stand next to sensitive content.

As the coverage of Black Lives Matter and the wider civil rights movement continue to grow, we are seeing brands spend even more time on questions of race and authenticity. Many are having internal meetings about diversity and accepting hard truths, and for the very first time, coming to market with a response. Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben’s being retired are prime examples of initiatives companies have taken, while Band-Aid is making bandages with multiple skin tones for the very first time.

While there’s a knee-jerk tendency to develop ad creative that makes brands appear just, fair and diverse on the surface, brands have to actually commit to the changes they promise in their advertising or risk being held accountable by an enlightened consumer body that is pushing back hard on hollow ad messages.

So, while the initial phases of buying ad space during these twin news stories presented challenges on levels previously not experienced by anyone in the ecosystem, our industry will ultimately look back on this time and these massive stories as a catalyst that taught us all about the critical nature of suitability and authentic messaging.

Follow Peer39 (@Peer39T) and AdExchanger (@adexchanger) on Twitter.

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