Mitigating the Impact of Coronavirus on Ad Revenue – A Publisher’s Guide

Updated on: January 9, 2024
As a publisher, you should be trying to figure out a way to minimize the impact of COVID-19 on your bottom line. Well, here's a list of actionable strategies to help you.

It’s been all over the news. The economic impact of COVID-19 is getting severe with every passing day and it pushes the publishers, on top of their problems, to face a new paradox — Increasing traffic and decreasing revenue. Typically, whenever there’s a hike in traffic, revenue tends to proportionally increase as well. But this time, it’s different. 

With every news site and local outlet covering information related to the pandemic, there’s a surge in traffic. Both the number of published articles and the weekly page views have been increasing steadily over the last few weeks. 

COVID Published Content

On the other hand, brands and advertisers are pulling in ad budgets. Businesses would like to cut costs at the moment and most of them tend to start [cutting the costs] from marketing & advertising. Especially, there’s no reason for local businesses to run ads and spend on marketing. 

Increased Traffic Data

“Right now – 2020 could end up 20-25% down in local advertising” 

– Corey Elliott VP of Research at Borrell Associates.

In fact, a recent survey from Digiday found that 88% of the publishing executives expect to miss their business goals this year due to the outbreak. As a publisher, you should start mitigating the impact on your bottom line. On this page, we are going to list the useful strategies, data, and inferences that can help you to do so. The best part is, we’ll continue to update the page with the latest information and strategies.

Let’s dive in. 

Demand-Side Platforms and Brand Safety

Before we get into the strategies and optimization techniques, we should understand how advertisers optimize their DSPs to ensure brand safety. A brand advertiser wouldn’t want to run ads alongside some bad news or non-brand safe content. Simon Harris from MightyHive shared an interesting piece to help advertisers manage brand safety via Display & Video 360. We can use it as a reference as most DSPs tend to have similar options to help advertisers run ads across brand-safe content. The idea is to know what advertisers do so that we can do our job better.

DV360 has three tools to avoid non-brand safe content. 

Sensitive Category Exclusions:

Media buyers can simply exclude content categories altogether with this feature. For instance, tragedy and shocking will exclude most of the content related to the current crisis. 

Sensitive Category Exclusion in DSP

Digital Content Labels:

Buyers can also exclude audiences who haven’t been labeled by Google yet. Those audiences might be new to the supply or publishers masked the domain URL. 

Digital Content Label Exclusions DV360

Keyword Exclusions:

Last is ‘keyword exclusions’. This lets the buyers block particular keywords that could be missed from the category filter. And, yes, it’s the widely used filter to block content at the moment. 

Keyword Exclusions in DV360

Any keywords related to COVID-19 are being blocked and it includes all the variants as well. In February, “coronavirus” became the second-most blocked keyword for news sites, after “Trump” according to Integral Ad Science (IAS). Across the open web, it is the third-most blocked keyword. 

We assume you get the scale of the problem and why you don’t have low or sometimes, zero competition for ad impressions even with the header bidding in place. Now, let’s look at the strategies you are here for. 

Strategies to Mitigate the Impact on Revenue

1. Leverage Video

We’ll begin with the simplest solution. Video consumption has substantially increased in the last week and with everyone staying indoors (surfing the Internet), it is likely to increase in the coming weeks. 

Video Consumption Data

Source: Primis Video

If you don’t have to own a library of videos, you can go with outstream videos and run pre-roll ads to monetize the views. The next question would be — is there a demand for increasing traffic? 

To be honest, the video ad revenue and eCPM tend to be low as it is Q2. But not all hope is lost. Wyzowl, a company that focuses on video content creation polled 160 marketers from the US and found that they spend from physical events and print is moving towards video. Specifically, 31% were pushing more spending on video. 

We expect that the demand will increase (slightly), but there are other advantages including increased time on page, engaged audience, etc. If you are refreshing ads, it directly translates to revenue. 

Next step: 

If you haven’t already, partner with a video monetization partner and give video ads a try. You can always test on a set of pages, analyze the user behavior and revenue, and then take it live across the site. 

2. Get Yourself Whitelisted

Keyword blacklisting is a problem that’s haunting the entire industry. We clearly saw how it amplified during the crisis in our weekly roundups

IAS Blocked Ads

There are only three ways to solve it. 

– Dodge it:

You can try to avoid blacklisted keywords as much as possible and limit the number of articles published on the same topic. You can, in fact, block coronavirus-related ads from appearing as it will sustain your brand image in the eyes of both readers and advertisers.  

Though this means reducing the inventory, you can ensure that the remaining impressions stay attractive to advertisers. 

Another strategy is to run education content on the topic that gets traffic and still some demand. Comscore launched an “epidemic brand safety filter” that will allow advertisers to run ads on educational content related to the pandemic. It is now available across several DSPs including MediaMath, Xandr, and The Trade Desk. 

“So, a brand might be comfortable with content around educational content surrounding the coronavirus, or content around some of the impacts of popular culture, but they very much want to stay away from content, say, about some of the horrible tragedies, or lockdowns, or content of that nature.”

– Rachel Gantz, General Manager, Activation Solutions at Comscore. 

So the demand can increase to an extent. 

– Get Whitelisted:

You can try to get yourself whitelisted from the direct advertisers and run guaranteed campaigns. Apparently, you need to make a case and convince advertisers to run ads. The good news is, research from IAS shows that 78% of the consumers are fine with the ads appearing alongside COVID-19 news. 

If they agreed to run ads across the site, then you might be able to mitigate the impact on the overall revenue. 

– Industry Initiatives:

Industry leaders and consortiums like Digital Content Next are approaching the advertisers’ community to show ads on news content. It might take time for the industry to turn off the filters. 

3. Focus on the Right Categories

It is true that several industries including travel, tourism, events, and movies are impacted adversely by the crisis. But on the other hand, certain categories are seeing an uplift. From Netflix to Teflon-like companies aren’t planning to cut down advertising spend any time soon. 

According to PubMatic, ad spending across News, Technology & Computing, Hobbies, Education has increased in March. 

Growing Categories

A report from Yelp also shows the categories that are rising lately. 

Yelp - Growing Categories

Surprisingly, Auto ad spending may hold steady in the coming months. While this doesn’t mean that publishers can swap advertisers and turn off the impact completely, it can help to pump up the bottom line back. 

Next steps: 

You can pull out reports from Google Ad Manager (or any ad server) and analyze the programmatic buyers this month to see the difference on your site. Whether it is a direct deal or header bidding, you’ll be able to adjust pricing, protection, and floor price to capitalize on the trend. 

4. Run Direct Deals

The easiest way to maximize revenue during this time is to see if you can run direct deals. With direct deals, you don’t have to worry about keyword blacklisting as you can convince the buyer to run ads on news content as well. 

With the lockdown, thousands of local businesses are setting up online stores to run the business. If you are a local news outlet, you can probably connect with existing and new online stores for direct deals. Then, there are several aggregators to help the local business to gain exposure and deliver take-out orders — a good place to start your search. 

You can offer discounts if they agree to run ads on COVID-19 news. For instance, The Guardian UK is allegedly offering 30% off their media if advertisers whitelist “Coronavirus”. 

Next steps:

See if you can ink some direct deals from local advertisers and you should pitch performance campaigns (pay when there’s an action, not for just impressions). Can’t find new advertisers? You can also try to extend the current campaigns. Pitch better pricing models and offer custom packages to keep the advertisers interested. 

5. Regain Adblock Users

Every publisher will have ad blocked users and it is the right time to get your site off the list. We have a post to help publishers deal with ad blockers, but right now, requesting users to whitelist your site will likely work.

Remember the large banner that appears at the end of every article on The Guardian? You can put together something similar to explain why it is important for them [readers] to whitelist your site. You can take an aggressive approach as well. For instance, several sites block users from viewing the content if there’s an adblocker. 

Next step:

You can simply place a banner or a pop-up to regain adblocked users. While it may not be a great sum, you can still unlock tens of thousands of impressions every day and it can add up over time. 

6. Get the Basics Right

When we are looking for a fix, we would like to see something new that can help us solve the problem quickly. But to be frank, if we didn’t get the basics right, no strategy will lead us to the desired results. 

What do we mean by basics? 

a. Ad viewability: 

There’s a good chance that you have come across several techniques that will help you optimize your ad viewability. For example, lazy loading. So, we’ll just show you the graph. 

Ad viewability and eCPM

Source: Browsi. 

Chart: Blue line – Ad viewability > 70% | Orange line – Ad viewability < 70% 

The data depicts that eCPM will be higher (up to 30%) for the ad impressions with viewability above 70%. So, it means you need to ensure that the KPIs including ad viewability is at the best possible values. 

b. Ad units and ad placements:

Though it looks quite simple, publishers tend to overlook ad unit/placement-level optimizations. Identify the right ad placements (here’s how) and run the ad units that are in demand. For instance, 160×600, 728×90, and 300×250 should be there on the pages. 

Next step:

Ensure you are preventing the value of the inventory by improving ad viewability and utilizing the right placements. If you are interested, we have a comprehensive guide on ad viewability.

Quick tip: If your BTF ad units aren’t getting viewed, replace it with sticky ad units

7. Optimize GAM Setup

Price Floors: Typically, you set price floors to restrict advertisers from buying your impressions at lower than expected ad rates. But it makes sense to decrease the floor price a bit and see the results. Else, you can use Target CPM to let Google dynamically change the floors to capture more bids. 

Put simply, you need to ensure that there are more bidders for your impressions. 

Pricing Rules: As a publisher, you need to reconsider the unified pricing rules you’ve set for the inventory. If you have applied specific pricing rules for geography, device, category, pages, etc. you should revisit them to ensure that they are updated according to the current performance. 

Remove Protections: Since Protection blocks advertisers from buying the ad impressions, look in Google Ad Manager if you have blocked any advertisers and remove the blocking for the same.

Multi-size Ad Requests: You can enable multi-size ad requests. You basically send requests for two or more ad sizes and render the one that pays the highest eCPM. This, in turn, increases the competition and cuts down the number of ad units on the page.

8. Maximize Fill Rate

We don’t push publishers to hit a 100% fill rate. Increasing fill rate can decrease eCPM, thus the overall revenue may not be influenced much. But now, publishers should optimize for fill rates. That doesn’t mean there’s no need to consider eCPM. 

We believe you can improve the fill rate without cutting down the ad rates. How?  Pull out the report for top advertisers and analyze their buying patterns – eCPM, revenue, % of bought impressions, etc. Adjust the floors so that they can continue to buy. You don’t want to cut them off, letting them buy for a slightly lesser eCPM will help you mitigate the impact. 

Note: This goes without saying — if you haven’t implemented header bidding, then you should.

Next step:

Optimize floor prices based on the advertiser-level data. For some advertisers, it makes sense to increase the eCPM and for some, you can decrease it. Ultimately, it varies from one publisher to another. 

9. Advanced Ad Refresh

Chartbeat found that the average engaged time on COVID-19 articles is more than that of other articles. And, if you deliver better content every time, users will spend more time on site as well. 

Engaged Time on COVID Content

Though you are likely to be familiar with ad refresh (refreshing ads after X seconds), you may not be familiar with the impact of it on the bottom line. Long story short — time-based refreshes aren’t enough and eCPM will be declining over time (for refreshed inventory). 

That’s why we implement Active Exposure Time (AXT). AXT is an advanced ad refresh technology that refreshes ads only when it is viewed by an active user for 25 seconds. In other words, we wouldn’t refresh an ad until an active user views it for 25 seconds completely. It can increase your revenue by up to 40% and ensure the value of your inventory is going up. 

As we only refresh viewable ads, ad viewability will increase, at least, by 25%. 

Next step:

Set up ad refresh that protects the value of your impressions. If you need to take AXT for a test run, you can download our Chrome extension to do so. 

10. Bid Caching

I bet you have come across bid caching. It made a splash last year and now it has become a common practice. 

 “So you only have so many chances to with the consumer you want, especially if you’re in a win-at-all-cost targeting for direct response. This [bid caching] gives you more opportunities to win the exact user they want.”

– Joey Leichman, VP of buyer development at OpenX.

Prebid, the most-used header bidding wrapper caches bids by default. However, if you are using the Prebid version above 2.0, you need to enable it with the following command line. 

Bid caching can increase eCPM, decrease page load time as well. That being said, you need to ensure you are caching the bids only under the circumstance described here

11. Content Recommendation

Almost all the publishers recommend some of their articles at the end of the page. Most of them are picked automatically based on the categories or post tags. But for COVID-19 news, you can strategically pick and recommend the posts that will direct the users to move to a page where you can run ads programmatically. 

And, the second pageview means that we can leverage bid caching and bidders’ partners will likely bid higher next time as they know the user slightly better.

12. Optimize Demand Partners

Apparently, you need to optimize your header bidding stack. We’ve been emphasizing the importance of bidder-level optimization for a while here.

  1. The more demand you have is better. But ensure you are having all the best demand partners on your client-side wrapper. Especially, Google Ad Exchange.
  2. Analyze the bid rate and win rate of every partner and optimize timeout, price floor (if any), etc to ensure maximum revenue. 

13. Capture First-party Data

We’ve been encouraging publishers to work on a first-party strategy and if you put it on the back burner, now is the time to execute it. We’ve discussed what data to collect and how to collect them in this guide

But you can start small. Thinking about offering an ebook or a seasonal newsletter to cater to the audience, start now. Collect email addresses and other basic information to learn more about your audience. 

You can offer a lot more than you think about the available information. Sponsorships on email newsletters, better content, increased pageviews (traffic from newsletters), and most importantly, it will help you in the near future (when Chrome phases out the support for cookies). 

If you are willing to invest in Data Management Platforms, you can sync with advertisers’ DMPs to run effective guaranteed campaigns. 

Next step: 

Start now. Collect first-party data, especially, email addresses of your users, interests, etc. with seasonal content offerings and put the derived inferences to use. 

14. Push Commerce Content

As you have guessed, eCommerce sites are seeing an uplift in sales and several publishers running affiliate ads have seen an increase in traffic towards commerce content. From The New York Times’ Wirecutter to niche sites, publishers are experiencing a hike in hits. 

This is primarily due to the fact that consumers are trying to avoid public places and social distancing is taking root across the globe. According to MediaRader, e-commerce ad spending jumped from $4.8 million the week of Feb. 17 to $9.6 million the week of Mar. 9. Sovrn says the daily commerce clicks have increased by 25% and verticals like fashion, home office equipment, etc. have seen an uplift. 

Please note that some retailers will also reduce the commission rate and adjust pricing strategies to reflect the demand. 

Next step:

First, publish and drive more traffic towards commerce content on your site. If you avoid using blacklisted keywords, you will be able to get better demand as eCommerce brands are actively spending on ads.  

Second, you can start with Amazon UAM. We’ve helped publishers to run Amazon UAM along with header bidding setup — the highest paying ad will win as usual. The problem is latency and complex setup, but if you need help, we are just a click away

15. Market Yourself

If you are selling or running several sites, you can use the unfilled impressions to market your products or other sites. From directing traffic to sister sites to selling digital products (for example, ebooks), you can capitalize on the increased traffic. We have seen publishers experimenting with ebook offerings and media partnerships. 

Some publishers use it to market their subscriptions and some to increase podcast downloads. This will translate to revenue indirectly. Let’s say you have ads on a podcast episode and driving traffic there will help you reach more audiences, thereby, increasing the potential for revenue. 

What’s Next?

As we always say, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution in adtech. You need to apply what suits you and exclude the rest. But from our experience, we believe all the above-mentioned strategies will be useful for both mid-market and premium publishers. Yes, we haven’t included micropayments/subscriptions here as it doesn’t apply for the majority of the publishers.

Did we miss anything? Have you tried any strategies that worked well? Let us know in the comments. 

News and Tips for Publishers

Get the inside scoop on publishing and programmatic with our 5-minute newsletter.