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Having a Healthy Relationship with Content and Information

Marketing in a Hyper-connected Digital World during trying times

In the first of a two part review into digital marketing during coronavirus, Matthew Styles looks at the key considerations for advertisers during this period of uncertainty, both for their consumers and the publishers they are funding.


One of the greatest positives of living in a hyper-connected digital world where information is readily accessible is the ease at which consumers can actively move their business from one brand to another. We have all benefited at some point from being able to compile information to affirm or change our perception of a brand, whereby we then make a decision about whether we want to interact with that brand, or not – and then easily find several others offering the same service that we would much rather engage with. This has resulted in the requirement for brands to adhere to something of a peer- and consumer-defined operational and ethical standard for their activity, including for their advertising and marketing. It should therefore be no surprise to advertising and marketing professionals that brands are making efforts to provide honest and robust value-exchanges to their consumers - and have been doing so for many years with the help of leading agencies. It may be important to consider that value in this example may be defined as not only the commercial interaction, but also the ethical value placed on the interaction by a consumer. Brand safety and advertising issue considerations are therefore increasingly key to thinking and decision making as we have seen, with many brands pivoting so that these factors hold more weight in marketing campaign planning than short-term revenue objectives.


One of the greatest negatives of living in a hyper-connected digital world where information is readily accessible is the widespread ease of exposure to fake news, disinformation and misinformation. In fact, as suggested in a recent report from the University of Baltimore and the cyber-security company CHEQ, the cost of Fake News carries a global cost of $78bn a year, in addition to the impacts from damaged reputation, including through the undermining of democracy in parallel. In line with the need to retain consumer favour for continuation of their support, brands and advertisers need to increasingly put measures in place to combat these key advertising issues, whereby they need to as best as possible actively control where their messaging appears and what it appears against. For example, it could potentially be damaging to a manufacturer trying to build a reputation of environmental sustainability to then inadvertently fund climate change denial content through paying for advertising space where the content appears – consumers may not understand that this may have been an accident, as they might expect you to be in control of your activity as a core ticket-to-entry for winning their support and interactions. With so many brands out there offering the same services at the same prices, there may not be room to make mistakes or accidents, meaning active planning should be put in place for these eventualities to prevent commercial ramifications of poorly deployed advertising and marketing.


As is topical at the moment, a good test for brands currently exists in how they are reacting to the plethora of fake content surrounding Covid-19, in terms of modifying their marketing and advertising activity to ensure they are not funding misinformation or disinformation content. Now more than ever, fake news and its spread may have the capacity to truly cause real-life consequences for our health and the health of our loved ones. We are seeing a wealth of fake content, such as the Bill Gates letter, rapidly spread across social media in particular, with some seemingly reputable and wholesome brands still presenting advertisements against it and therefore funding its continuation. Worse still is the fact that we live in a world with ever increasing digital literacy, meaning tech-savvy profiteers are setting up websites to exploit the commercial element of supplying fake content around Covid-19; the Covid-19 scam and malware website issue is now so prevalent in New York that lawmakers are advising crack downs on domain registrations. 


I discussed this with Harriet Kingaby, 2019 Mozilla Fellow and Co-Chair of the Conscious Advertising Network, who posited that “this is a great test for the marketing and advertising industry - can we play a role in ensuring a responsible media environment and flow of information at a time of international crisis? We should be looking carefully at advertising spend, to ensure that those that need it receive it, and that bad actors can't make a fortune from it”. Harriet further suggested that “we should be advising brands to reward factual, hard news sites doing good reporting around Covid-19 and remove spend from platforms that are actively promoting fake news or down playing the level of the crisis. Perhaps, for example, by creating blocklists for certain terms associated with 'cures' or blocking terms that could potentially result in damaging content being supplied from online searches - even to the point of considering blocklists for specific prominent languages in our communities, to ensure all avenues are covered”.


In line with the Conscious Advertising Network’s manifesto suggestions, it is important now more than ever that brands and advertisers use a range of verification tools and procedures to manage advertising against fake content, and advertising issues in general; the use of brand safety and issue management procedures is something that the team at Merkle is highly proactive in delivering already, with a dedicated sub-team that constantly reviews best practices being a core component of digital media delivery functioning. There should be a heavy reliance of compiling lists of reputable publishers and sites that support responsible and high-quality content, including for journalism, in an active effort to resolve the problem of fake news, disinformation and misinformation. Longer-term, such efforts may form a trusted partner list that can be deployed with greater scale in all future activity, not just confined to responding to a hopefully short-lived crisis. Ensuring that quality content and journalism continues to be funded through advertising is just one role advertisers can play, at a time that we need it most. No advertiser wants to inadvertently fund fake news or irresponsible journalism, or the distortion of public discourse through fake online content, but, by embedding good practices, we can be part of the solution.  Read our part two for details on how agencies, brands and verification partners can come together to advance brand safety moving forwards.

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