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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

Breaking the chain: How to optimize digital advertising in the coming election

August 3, 2020 | By Paul Canlas, Research & Insights Director – IAS @integralads

This time last year, the industry and consumers alike were already thinking about how to navigate the upcoming U.S. presidential election. But with the new decade came new and unexpected challenges. The coronavirus pandemic understandably shifted attention away from the election and toward the devastating, evolving global situation. 

As the world slowly begins to heal, the advertising landscape is once again shifting. In May 2020, IAS reported a 48% decrease in overall coronavirus content online. The nation, and likely the world, will turn their attention back to the presidential race, and will again face the challenge of sorting through seemingly infinite sources of information. With less than 100 days until the election, can the industry work together this time around? Publishers and marketers alike have many issues to address in order to ensure that consumer trust and brand safety are ensured.

The chain reaction 

With unprecedented rates of content creation, the digital landscape has become increasingly difficult to navigate. Consumer perception is seemingly more changeable than ever. Advertisers, concerned about consumer perception, are quick to adjust or halt campaigns in response to sensitive topics. And publishers feel increased pressure to  maintain editorial integrity while supporting their bottom line. 

This chain reaction has been especially apparent in the last four years. The prevalence of fake news and foreign interference in the 2016 election created mistrust among consumers. Advertisers reacted accordingly, growing weary of news publishers and in some cases, shifting ad dollars away from them. 

Since then, advertising spend has bounced back, but consumers remain concerned about misinformation. Prior to the Covid-19 outbreak, IAS asked consumers how they were feeling about the upcoming presidential election. The results showed that 77% of respondents were still concerned about fake news online, and 80% were concerned about the proliferation of misinformation. 

Then, news of the coronavirus pandemic flooded the internet. In the beginning, IAS found that content related to the virus reached a sentiment of about 60% negative and 40% positive or neutral. But by late March, negative content spiked 15 percentage points, reaching 75%.

As a result, advertisers swiftly changed campaign initiatives or halted them completely. Publishers experienced the shift firsthand: 77% of non-news publishers said they were asked to stop digital ads on their sites. This number grew for news publishers, 88% of whom reported being asked to cancel all digital ad campaigns.

At the same time, consumers started to check out. At the end of April, the Pew Research Center found that about 7 in 10 Americans said they needed to take breaks from news about coronavirus. With fewer ad dollars and consumer attention to news, publishers have been working overtime to remind both their audiences and partners of their value, especially in times of crisis. 

The path ahead 

The pattern is abundantly clear: Controversy divides the digital advertising industry. Sensitive storylines, trending topics, and clickable content all have the power to launch a chain reaction that starts with changes in consumer perception, followed by shifts or decreases in ad spend, leaving publishers in the lurch. 

Of course, marketers  should continue to be diligent about protecting their brands from unsuitable content. This not only means responding to evolving, endless news cycles but also recognizing that premium news sources create relatively safe advertising environments. Still, there’s undoubtedly room to be more proactive and more collaborative, especially in the face of a highly anticipated presidential election. 

It is critical for publishers to get ahead of election season by proactively connecting with agency and advertising partners. At IAS, we’re dedicated to facilitating transparency and communication to support all members of the ecosystem. We’re continuing to advise advertisers to leverage inclusion lists, and scrub their exclusion lists frequently to avoid overblocking. 

We’re also recommending that marketers take a look at their campaign KPIs and ensure these goals have flexibility to adjust. Creating space for adjustments across all campaign parameters will ensure that quality publishers remain eligible players. 

Finally, we’re reminding advertisers about IAB’s Ads.txt initiative, which increased transparency of inventory flow in the online advertising ecosystem. Taking steps to identify and reduce threats will increase advertiser confidence, buoying relationships to better weather the tides of unpredictable election season content.  

Breaking the chain

The impact of coronavirus on the digital landscape extends beyond shifting attention away from the election. It has the potential to shape the results. When asked, 85% of consumers believe that the coronavirus pandemic will influence the outcome of the 2020 election. While the sentiment of coronavirus content has become significantly less negative, consumers are right to remain concerned about fake news. In 2016, engagements with fake news articles on Facebook alone reached 8.7M, surpassing those with mainstream news. 

If the past is any indication of the future, advertisers will likely be cautious about appearing next to political content. And they’ll try to avoid fake news and misinformation at all costs. To that end, quality contexts have never been more important. Break the chain and align in support of journalistic integrity during this pivotal time in American history.

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