COVID-19 shows us why quality journalism matters, but brands are contributing to its demise

Brands are blocking ads from appearing next to important news stories, meaning they miss out on some of the most engaging content an audience will see in a day, and media owners face plummeting ad revenues that threaten newsrooms. As the BBC's Jamie Chambers argues, marketers must take some responsibility for this.

Recent news of huge audience growth amongst news publishers is once again proving the value of quality news in times of need. However, this was almost lost in a sea of reports of media companies making deep cuts in response to advertisers cutting spend.

COVID-19 is again highlighting just how important news is in people’s lives, helping them understand and gain perspective on key issues and events. But as well as reaching huge, engaged audiences, major news events like the pandemic, Trump’s impeachment inquiry, Brexit, and the bushfires also had something else in common – advertisers pulling campaigns and reflexively updating keyword blocking lists to ensure their advertisements don’t appear next to news about these topics.

In the current era, brand advertisers should be crying out for engaged audiences, but instead, we see the opposite. Brands that target away from news at scale, with little analysis or evidence to support this knee-jerk reaction, contribute to the demise of great journalism that serves the public – their customers – and robs them of some of the most effective advertising environments.

Advertisers are missing the point: Consumers are facing the reality of what’s in the news every day. Putting my personal ‘consumer hat’ on for a moment, I expect to see brands around this content, and I don’t judge them badly for it. In fact, I quietly respect them stepping up.

But despite this, like other publishers, at BBC News Global we are still managing requests to pause or cancel campaigns, and update blocking lists to ensure campaigns do not appear next to COVID-19 content – but why? And at what cost?

After all, this maxim holds more truth now than ever before: When times are good, you should advertise. When times are bad, you must advertise.

As everyone adjusts to the crisis, brand advertisers are adjusting campaigns to avoid news content like the plague (pun intended). To compound matters, verification platforms make it too easy for brands to target away from news without much thought or deeper consideration on why they are doing this, other than the sometimes lazy assumption that bad news isn’t a safe place to advertise.

As a consequence, the same media owners that provide such a valuable resource for Australians are facing monumental economic challenges that threaten newsrooms. Marketers must take some responsibility for this.

But maybe it doesn’t have to be this way.

The first myth to dispel is that the only thing people are interested in at the moment is COVID-19, and therefore they have no time for anything else. Audiences still want great content, and we’ve seen growth on our non-news feature sites.

But – and here’s the real kicker – these same news audiences are lapping up branded content. Analytics show a phenomenal growth in branded content engagement, with 108% growth in page views to branded content from BBC.com audiences (versus October 2019.) These are people clicking through to branded content via advertising formats on COVID-19 news pages – the same content that advertisers are trying so hard to avoid.

The presumption that hard news can a bad place to advertise is not new, and needless to say, some advertisers will need to avoid certain news content.

However, quality news offers some of the most engaging content your audiences will read that day – and evidence suggests it’s some of the most effective content you can find.

Verification technologies now make it easier than ever for advertisers to avoid certain news out of the unqualified fear it may be detrimental to their brand or campaign performance. But anecdotal evidence shows in some cases, brands are either not taking the time to consult with their agency or tech partners to customise their blocking lists or simply taking a blunt force approach to blocking content at scale, with the impact being they are missing out on some of the most effective environments.

The recent case of an ad verification tool blocking an advertiser’s home page buyout of the New York Times surely shows how we have slipped too far down the path of ‘brand safety’.

Make no mistake, these are tough times for everyone, and advertisers that are tightening budgets still need results. But the evidence clearly shows the ROI that quality news organisations can offer, and this same investment will also support a healthy and diverse news industry which provides such a crucial resource.

Surely that’s good news.

Jamie Chambers is BBC Global News’ regional director for ANZ


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