As the United States reflects on the riot that occurred on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, social media platforms have taken action against President Trump for his role in fomenting insurrection. While the outgoing president may be absent from these platforms, a stunned nation continues to react as more details regarding the event, and what’s to occur leading up to President-elect Biden’s inauguration, become available.

Social media platforms have become an ideological battleground, and in light of recent events, some brands are looking to keep themselves out of the crossfire by halting their social ad campaigns. Although prioritizing brand safety is a smart play, it’s more effective as an ongoing, proactive effort than as a last-minute resort.

How advertisers have responded

“Some of my clients have paused their media — especially on social,” Amy Bishop, owner of Cultivative, told Search Engine Land. “They’re trying to avoid their ads showing amidst the news and conversations around this week’s events,” she said, adding that some of those clients have also halted their organic social campaigns as well.

Many marketers are opting to play it safe, and they’re in good company. “Right now, people want answers and change; they don’t want to see ads, promotions, or unrelated content,” said Sheeta Verma, marketing associate at Neurable, “People are very online, especially during crises — the moment they see [an oblivious] brand or company, it will immediately backfire and put them on a do-not-engage list.” 

Despite the potential risks, some brands aren’t pausing their campaigns. Some marketers are citing that their ads are apolitical, while others hope that their positive messaging will be a breath of fresh air for their audiences.

The cases for and against pausing ads in times of disruption

Why hitting the brakes might be the right move. The possibility of coming off as insensitive is a commonly cited reason for brands to temporarily halt their campaigns, as Verma alluded to.

While the fear of an insensitive or poorly placed ad going viral isn’t a realistic possibility for most brands, the question of whether audiences are in the right mindset to be marketed to is one that every advertiser should ask. And to that end, some advertisers, perhaps recognizing that they don’t have anything useful or helpful to offer potential customers at this time, have also opted to pause campaigns.

In addition to these potential risks, there are also performance-based reasons to stop advertising during times of uncertainty. “Social proof — comments, likes, and shares can be a huge boost to your ad performance, especially when they’re positive,” said digital marketing consultant Logan Mayville, “But, if your ad appears between two Newsfeed posts of people burning flags and all sorts of negative content due to an unforeseen national news event, it’s going to look out of place.”

This kind of unfortunate placement may draw ire from users. “There’s a solid chance people might jump in the comments section of your ad and blast you for being ‘insensitive’ or some other negativity,” he said, adding, “This will bring down your [relevance] score with Facebook, and also potentially have some brand repercussions for your business.”

But, why stop ads if there’s no impact on performance? There may be reasons not to pause campaigns, such as the above-mentioned apolitical ad, but those aren’t necessarily the same as reasons to continue advertising during these contentious times. 

Simply put, “there are clients that are beholden to hitting certain numbers with a sense of urgency that don’t feel they can afford to pause right now,” said Bishop, “Many of them aren’t seeing it have an impact on their performance, and haven’t received negative feedback from it, both of which could change things.” So, until firsthand experience proves otherwise, many marketers may just continue to advertise as usual.

“Brands have gotten into a habit of blocking ads after negative news events or pausing them entirely because they believe these stories are an unsafe environment for their brands,” said Nandini Jammi, co-founder of Check My Ads, adding that, because people turn to the news to make sense of what’s going on around them, advertising with reputable news organizations can actually help brands build trust with consumers.

“The fact is, there are no known risks of sponsoring the news, even during bad times,” she said, “As far as a brand safety crisis? The only thing you have to worry about is if your ads end up on a disinformation or extremist site.”

Your “business as usual” should include crisis response measures

Take a stand and back it up. A proactive approach can enable brands to respond quickly and minimize the impact of these disruptions on their businesses. “The brands best prepared for moments like these are the ones in which activism and diversity run deep into the fabric of company culture,” said freelance social media manager Jeeves Williams.

Finding ways to connect with your audience and letting them know your values align with theirs can make them more receptive to your messaging. Take ice cream brand Ben & Jerry’s, for example:

Click on the embedded tweet for Ben & Jerry’s full statement.

This type of crisis response messaging can only be successful if a brand has a history of speaking out, which Ben & Jerry’s has been doing for years. Of course, a company statement isn’t a paid ad. However, it’s still an opportunity to assert your brand and highlight what you’re doing to alleviate those currently suffering — a far cry from simply seeking to stay out of the fray.

Having the vast resources of a Fortune 500 business isn’t required to coordinate such a response, nor is the lack thereof an excuse for silence when people are looking for support. “For those independent local businesses, the influence they could have on a community level is potentially very powerful, so finding ways to help disenfranchised, underprivileged, and overlooked people in their neighborhoods might make more sense than switching to radio silence for a few days,” Williams added.

Create a rapid response workflow. A rapid response team or workflow is one way to prepare your brand for the unpredictable, as I covered in my content marketing keynote at SMX Next. A clear division of responsibilities and audit of existing processes can help you get a better idea of what it would take to halt ads or automated social media and get more relevant messaging approved by stakeholders.

“Any time there’s a major tragedy or turmoil, it’s a good idea to double-check your ad copy and content,” Bishop said, warning brands that messaging that was seemingly innocent when it was written may take on a double meaning in light of a major event or tragedy, particularly when idioms are used.

Knowing where your ads can appear is also crucial to preventing damage to your brand’s reputation. “If you’ve left your ad placements up to your vendors to handle, I can guarantee you you’ve been funding the disinformation and extremist content you want to avoid,” Jammi said, “The only way to find out is to actually open up that long list of placements and actually look at where your ads are ending up.” If regularly auditing your ad placements is too resource intensive, it might be better to reconsider your advertising strategy and instead create inclusion lists for trusted sites, she recommended. 

Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. “Clients that are really reliant on one channel now have to make all-or-nothing decisions to either pause ads without a good alternative for driving business, or to try to test a new alternate channel without precedent, which isn’t a great option on a whim,” said Bishop. Advertisers that spread out their presence across diverse channels will have access to more options, and experience with those channels can help them make more informed decisions when current events take an unexpected turn.

“Brands that have diversified their investment across channels have a leg-up when it comes to making quick shifts because they have data to support their decisions to heavy up other investments while withdrawing from riskier channels,” Bishop said, acknowledging that experimenting with other channels and measuring outcomes does require an initial investment. But, those investments can pay off, especially if your business is in a highly competitive sector.


About The Author

George Nguyen is an editor for Search Engine Land, covering organic search, podcasting and e-commerce. His background is in journalism and content marketing. Prior to entering the industry, he worked as a radio personality, writer, podcast host and public school teacher.

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