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Fake News: Is It Hurting Contextual Marketing?

Acxiom Last Updated June 11th, 2020
Fake News: Is It Hurting Contextual Marketing?

Engaging customers in the right context has become marketing gospel. But what’s your definition of context? A scan of different blogs and ad tech pitches suggests a rough consensus: reach the right consumer with the right message at the right time. It’s a broad definition.

So is this just another way to talk about behavioral targeting? Or could a stricter definition of contextual marketing offer more value for marketers and consumers—by prompting advertisers to think a bit more about another hot topic, fake news?

Context includes editorial content.

The “right consumer, right message, right time” definition leaves one thing out: context as the environment where the consumer experiences your message. You hear this from marketers on the publishing side who sell ad space as a kind of premium context—a trusted, desirable place for consumers to engage a brand.

So let’s ask a business question, leaving morality and civics to others. If your goal is to market in context, does the actual environment, the where, matter? Or is it enough to find your audience as efficiently as you can? To use data to know the consumer, customize the message and display it on a site the algorithms swear will attract said consumer, plus thousands of look-alikes?

What some publishers say.

Publishers who invest in content—as in trained editors and reporters who have heard of Woodward and Bernstein—naturally say no to the latter. Here’s what one media marketer told me:

“There has been a tendency to focus so much on the availability of audiences that the value of the content has been reduced or almost denied.” Or, if you will, the value of context. This marketer added: “It’s important to maintain an editorial brand. Otherwise, everything is a commodity.”

One supporting example: the 22-year-old who netted $1,000 an hour in ad revenue and 6 million social shares with a story he fabricated about ballot box-stuffing in Ohio during the presidential campaign.

In the media marketer’s opinion, this erosion in the value of content, which forms the context of consumer engagement, “softens the value proposition…being able to reach the people you want in the environment you want.”

Put another way: if the whole point of contextual marketing is to create great customer experiences, ones that lead to better results and higher lifetime value, isn’t the space where the experience happens an important piece of the puzzle? If so, wouldn’t this argue for measurement that goes beyond short-term gains and factors in brand equity?

The other side of the argument.

The counter view is money talks. If you could reach the same audience at a lower cost, does it matter if your ad is right next to a headline like “3 Things They Don’t Want You Know about Elvis and Roswell”?

One advertiser told the L.A. Times, “Fake news sites probably perform as well as a real news website, so I don’t think it makes an impact on my bottom line. That being said, from an ethical perspective, I would prefer to work with a business that prohibits fake news.” If you detect some hesitation in his remarks, it’s because the advertiser did, on at least one occasion, pay to run an ad on a fake news site.
You could call that a business decision. You could even argue the context was right for the brand, not just a play for clicks, depending on what the brand projects and the personas that sustain it. If it made money, there was business logic behind it.

And besides, people choose to click on those ads and spend time on those sites. Doesn’t that mean they’re open to the content and comfortable with the context?

It’s true that public backlash has spurred some brands like Kellogg’s to pull ads from certain sites. It’s also true today that programmatic ad buying means losing some control over where your message is running, though most brands still have a good understanding of where their ads appear—they curate buys and choose reputable publishers. It’s not a total crapshoot.

What will the future hold?

Facebook and Google are both working on screening misinformation. Facebook announced it was exploring ways for users to report fake news and beginning to partner with professional fact-checking organizations. The twin publishing giants also announced a partnership to identify fake news during the French elections this spring.

And what about ad networks? Until they flag or stop supporting sites that run fake news, the supply chain won’t be clean enough for marketers to monitor it and convey their expectations: “We value our brand, so don’t tarnish it on sites that play fast and loose with the truth.”

Another media marketer I spoke with thinks the fake news trend could break either way:

“I think we’re in a moment in time where the question of what is fake news may or may not be more important than ever. Either editorial trust is going to matter even more—or perhaps the system is so broken that it’s never going to mean the same thing again. I’m not sure which way it goes.”

To help restore trust, marketers need an easier way to make placement choices. They should know what they’re buying without fear of toxic press or consumer boycotts. One wonders if DSPs can incorporate ‘quality scoring’ of news sites the way Comscore rates media sites. Even if you choose to run ads on sites that rate low for truthiness, at least you’d know in advance of the buy to avoid PR ambushes.
After all, fake news sites may be a recent phenomenon, but opportunity and risk are as old as, well, truth and lies. To learn more about contextual marketing, including a different definition, see the Forrester white paper The Power of Customer Context.