South China Morning Post’s VP of Digital on How Covid-19 Has Impacted Ad Buys

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Significant media coverage over the past year has been devoted to a complex situation unraveling in Hong Kong. A bill was introduced that would give the Chinese government legal capability to extradite Hong Kong citizens back to the mainland. Talking at Advertising Week JAPAC, Ian Hocking, VP, Digital at The South China Morning Post – the newspaper of record for Hong Kong where it has been headquartered for more than 100 years – explained how the newspaper decided to start looking into reader sentiment about the avalanche of content written by the publication on the issue. They ended up learning a lot more than they had originally intended, in particular about the impact Covid-19 has had on ad buying in the region.

The South China Morning Post reaches 50 million readers every month with roughly half in North America and Europe. Ian Hocking spoke with us about the findings.

AW360: News has emerged that publishers’ revenues have been suffering due to the ad-blocking technology that brands are using to keep their ads away from Covid-19 content, what impact are you seeing at the SCMP and to the wider space?

Over the last few months, we have seen significant negative effects relating to Covid-19. The Open Marketplace was the first to be affected. Initially in the bid price, followed shortly by a significant drop in total bid density. Overall this has reduced our CPM by c.20% for display Ads.

In conversation with one demand partner, we were informed that up to 70% of our inventory was being blocked by negative keyword targeting including Covid-19.

AW360: You talk about ‘suitability’ can you explain how it should guide the parameters by which brands limit their ad buys?

Suitability is an extension of Brand Safety. It recognizes that marketers have more sophisticated requirements. For example, it may not be appropriate to advertise around parenting content if you are an alcohol brand.

Brand suitability can also be used to positively target contexts that you do wish to be associated with.  For example, you may want to always appear around positive/feel-good content.

AW360: Distinguishing between safe and unsafe content requires a nuanced understanding of context – something the human brain does easily. How important is the context here, and why has the tech been behind on this?

I believe the tools that are most widely used are created to help build confidence when buying in the open marketplace. They are set up to help ensure that when you buy across 1000+ sites you are well protected. This means that strict and simple rules work best. However, when buying site-specific or in a smaller group of sites that you know and trust, there is room for nuance.

The tool (SCMP SIGNAL) we have developed reads the full article and then scores each paragraph for safety, readability, context and sentiment. By looking at the frequency of keywords across the article you can score any of these elements and set thresholds.

How suitable an article is, is subjective.  This tool allows us to set an acceptable level and ensure we never place an Ad that does not meet these standards.

AW360: Suggestions were being made to advertise away from ‘news’ categories toward areas like technology, pop culture, video gaming, fitness & exercise whose content is overwhelmingly safe. What are your thoughts?

I think that environment is key. For example, when you come to a news site you are primed for a type of content. You are in a trusted environment where you expect to be educated, engaged and challenged. Even hard news is rarely un-safe for advertisers.

We see our most loyal, engaged users in our news content and with the release of SIGNAL we can also see that we get some of our strongest campaign performance from this engaging content.

I strongly believe news is not only safe but also provides some of the best return on investment that any brand can buy.


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