Website Publishers Are Getting More Traffic from COVID-19 But Are Having Trouble Monetizing

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Written by Ann Brown
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Website publishers are getting more traffic from the COVID-19 pandemic but they are having trouble monetizing it. In February, ‘coronavirus’ became the second-most common blacklisted word — following ‘Trump’ — for news publishers.

The COVID-19 pandemic has people rushing to digital media in search of information, and websites are seeing a major boost in clicks. So why hasn’t this resulted in a jump in ad sales for website publishers?

For advertisers, coronavirus and related terms have become unwelcome.

“Advertisers not wanting their brand alongside news of sickness and death and the various other unpleasantries of our current reality are pulling spend, if not blocking terms like ‘coronavirus’ and ‘pandemic’ across programmatic channels,” Ad Week reported. “This means publishers can’t make money off the massive number of eyeballs coming to their sites.”

More than 2 million ads were blocked from appearing on The New York Times, CNN, USA Today and The Washington Post in the first three weeks of March, due to their expanded coverage of the pandemic, according to Buzz Feed.

In March, Integral Ad Science, an ad verification company that works with a brand to improve the quality of its ad placements, automatically blocked 309,726 — roughly 36 percent — of ads that the brand attempted to place on the New York Times’ website, Buzz Feed reported. By comparison, 3 percent of ads were blocked in January and 6 percent in February. On USA Today’s website, 34 percent of the ads the company attempted to place were blocked in March. On the Washington Post website, 45 percent of ads were blocked and 29 percent on CNN’s website. A total of about 2.2 million ads for the brand were blocked from appearing.

“In February, ‘coronavirus’ became the second-most common blacklisted word — following ‘Trump’ — for news publishers and the third most common blocked keyword across the open web,” Admonsters reported. Google has instituted a policy prohibiting ad content that capitalizes on the outbreak, in response to the misinformation being spread about the virus.

Additionally, publishers can’t charge higher CPMs in order to recoup any losses from canceled events or ad spend pulls. (CPM, an advertising acronym, stands for “cost per thousand impressions.” It measures how much money it costs advertisers to reach 1,000 readers, viewers, visitors or listeners, according to The Houston Chronicle.)

Publisher trade body Digital Content Next is trying to help website publishers out. In an open letter to the third party ad verification industry, Digital Content Next asked advertisers and verification companies to change their default settings to exempt news sites when blocking COVID-19 news.

The letter asked that “leading members of the ad tech and verification industry – Google, Oracle, Double Verify, IAS — immediately exempt premium, trusted media properties by default from their brand safety filters around coronavirus, COVID-19, and related keywords and topics. Advertisers will continue to have full control over their campaigns. We’re merely asking you to eliminate the friction that comes with choices of defaults, an area you know very well.”

The letter’s second request was that “leaders in the advertising and marketing industry have a conversation with clients now that factual news coverage of this coronavirus and COVID-19 needs to be supported. That responsible brands should be in and around news and to immediately review any advertiser-specific keyword list so that advertising in news is not blocked.”

Advertisers who have placed coronavirus-related terms on their “do not serve” list are losing out to get their brands before more people due to the increased website traffic.

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“Certainly, some advertisers don’t want any association with coronavirus (a certain beer brand comes to mind), but many are losing out on qualified, engaged audiences. Brand safety practices have long been due for serious revision, and maybe this moment will make it happen. For one thing, brands should realize pre-bid if the target content is ‘unsafe,’” Admonsters reported. 

Incredibly, although more people are viewing news sites, news sites continue to see a decline in ad revenue. 

The year 2020 will be the worst for U.S. local news media, according to Joshua Benton, director of the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. “We’ll see cities lose their last daily newspapers at a scale far beyond anything this country has seen,” he told Admonsters.