Premium publishers tick all the boxes for advertisers but they have been adversely affected by brand safety measures, says AOP’s Richard Reeves.

COVID-19 has underscored the importance of providing trustworthy content, with audiences flocking to premium publisher environments and almost half (43%) stating trusted website articles will own an integral role in their purchasing decisions post-pandemic. Yet while we talk about the importance of ‘trust’ from a consumer and societal point of view, isn’t it hypocritical when we don’t seem to trust the partners we work most closely with?

If consumers trust premium publishers, why don’t you?

Media owners are fully accountable for the content they generate – they always have been and always will be. So, if premium publishers are in control and liable for the content they create, where do advertisers’ trust concerns come from?

Taking a step back, there’s an understandable level of caution around online advertising and where ads may ‘end up’. But we have to recognise the nuances of the supply chain and not punish the majority because of a few bad players. If we take a look at COVID-related content, ad agencies that rushed to add the keyword ‘coronavirus’ to their blocklist at the start of the pandemic unintentionally penalised premium news organisations producing quality content with high readership, resulting in an estimated £50m in publishing revenue losses over just three months.

Even though premium publishers have always worked to far higher standards, they have actively chosen to engage with efforts to raise industry brand safety standards as they understand what the wider ecosystem stands to gain from it. However, in what could be described as self-sabotage, publishers are now expected to work with clumsy content verification solutions – that they didn’t need in the first place – introducing serious side effects such as misfiring reporting pixels and page latency, subsequently impacting the publisher revenue and the user experience. Once again it is premium publishers that suffer, needlessly.

Of course, brand safety should always be a priority, especially during a time of widespread misinformation, but the burden shouldn’t lie on one industry player and certainly shouldn’t punish highly-regulated premium publishers.

According to the latest Trustworthy Accountability Group (TAG) survey, consumers feel brand safety responsibility should lie equally across all industry players including advertisers (52%), agencies (56%), technology providers (47%), and publishers (54%) – and we agree. We must work together to create a trusted ecosystem, but also a fair one.

Can we trust our peers to help level the playing field?

Platforms such as the Ozone Project are exemplifying how industry players can come together to achieve their desired outcomes and create a level playing field. For advertisers, the initiative provides full transparency into viewability and brand safety, while for publishers, the project upholds compliance with privacy regulations, streamlines data management, and improves monetisation.

Another example is the Cross-Industry Programmatic Taskforce, put in place following the publication of the ISBA Programmatic Supply Chain Transparency Study, in association with the AOP and carried out by PwC,  to facilitate change in the programmatic supply chain and ensure standardisation across our industry.

Ten years ago, it would have been unthinkable for competing publishers to unite their efforts toward a shared goal. The emergence of these collaborative undertakings is a positive sign, helping to align the ecosystem in its search for more effective and sustainable future, but are tech giants, AKA our ‘frenemies’, also working to make changes for the good of the wider industry?

Can we trust in our frenemies?

In early 2021, Google launched its News Showcase programme in the UK, improving the visibility of local, national, and independent publishers while enhancing their relationships with audiences. Aimed at supporting quality journalism, the platform comes with the promise of better compensation. Operating on an invite-only basis, publishers will own a degree of control and be able to negotiate partnership terms that reflect their needs, resources, and business model.

Facebook followed a similar route with its News product launch, which focuses on curated content from a range of publishers. It’s too soon to determine the value these initiatives deliver for publishers, with some news providers welcoming them and others avoiding them, but it marks a crucial step in the right direction for fair remuneration.   

As a more established offering, Google’s News Initiative (GNI) has been working in tandem with media owners since its launch in 2018. Centred around three objectives – elevating quality information and combating misinformation, evolving business models to support quality journalism, and empowering news organisations to use new technologies – the News Initiative is driving industry-wide innovation and collaboration.

Premium publishers have been able to address key challenges, including revenue growth, content distribution, and accurate reporting. Working with Google on the initiative, in 2018 Washington Post adopted AMP, a web component framework used to easily create user-first websites, stories, emails, and ads, and improved its content load time by 88% and increased returning users from mobile search by 23%.

In August 2021, Core Web Vitals will be live; the latest technology innovation from Google designed to further drive a positive user experience. Publishers have positively and proactively engaged with the metrics for many months, testing and implementing them in preparation. Generally, publishers remain aligned with the tech giant in recognising the importance of placing the consumer experience first (their greatest asset) – and I expect this will be a helpful differentiator in enabling users to more easily identify quality content environments.

Ultimately, we need to ask ourselves – what is a relationship without trust? When we can see the results of our progress, investing trust in other industry players will only accelerate the evolution toward realising a stronger ecosystem. The initial steps have already been taken, but there is more that publishers, tech platforms, and even governments can do to transform the digital industry. Working together, it is in our reach to operate on a basis of trust and quality.