Awin Thoughts: The Coronavirus infodemic

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There is an over-abundance of information on the web and with the outbreak of the Coronavirus, this has created an ‘infodemic’ with questionable news sources. 

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“The 2019-nCoV outbreak and response has been accompanied by a massive ‘infodemic’ - an over-abundance of information – some accurate and some not – that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it.” World Health Organization – Coronavirus Situation Report - 13 

Remove the WHO’s reference to the coronavirus and you have, in a nutshell, one of the major dilemmas that the scale and reach of the web has brought to the fore over the last decade. An over-abundance of information and a lack of trustworthy, reliable sources. The virus has only adorned the problem with a new sense of urgency. 

From unsubstantiated conspiracy theories around the virus’ origins as a Chinese bio-chemical weapon, to speculative advice that eating garlic might help prevent infection, the internet rumour mill is currently at full throttle. 

While many of us might laugh these incredulous stories off, the effects of mass hysteria are serious. Public fear is palpable and evident in changing consumer patterns. By now we’re all familiar with stories of face mask, hand sanitiser and toilet roll scarcity.  

Awin’s own recent analysis of the UK travel market highlighted another example of the effect panic has had on booking trends. 

Although the year started off strongly for the travel sector with sales up by 22% year-on-year, by the start of March this had dropped to a 12% decline in bookings for the same period in 2019. Not unexpected given the news we’ve regularly seen reported around airline collapses, regional travel bans and further outbreaks.  

What is most interesting though is to overlay that decline in sales for bookings with the uptick we’ve simultaneously witnessed in travel insurance. The two inversely mirror each other almost entirely. Insurance was actually down by 18% in January and has since recovered to show a 9% increase year-on-year for the start of March as holidaymakers seek to protect their investments. 

The surge has become so strong that many insurance companies are now announcing a freeze on new policies. 

Whilst not a direct cause of the trends we’ve tracked, many UK shoppers will have heeded the advice of Martin Lewis, consumer champion and one of the most influential personalities for savvy shoppers. His website, Money Saving Expert (MSE), has long been recognised as a source of trustworthy consumer advice. Speaking about the consequences of the coronavirus on national television recently, he urged UK holidaymakers to ensure they had insurance for their holidays. 

MSE is also a hugely successful affiliate site, generating millions of pounds in revenue for its advertiser partners. However, first and foremost it is an arbiter of trust. Its reviews and articles are frequently sought out by consumers who need assistance before buying a product online. Any compromise on that authority necessarily undermines its brand and user value.  

How do you effectively monetise a website (without paywalls by the way) that prides itself on its impartiality and trusted reviews? MSE does it by being transparent about its monetisation and stands out amongst affiliate sites as being particularly explicit in how it signposts commercial partnerships to its users.  

By doing so, the site ensures its users are aware of how it makes its money and where commercial links are featured, thereby preserving its status as a trusted source of reliable information.  

This dilemma has struck a chord in the affiliate industry recently. Regulators around the world including the ASA in the UK, the FTC in the US and Deutscher Werberat in Germany, have increasingly scrutinised and penalised instances where influencers and affiliates have not met their standards of advertising disclosure.  

I recently helped host a dedicated strategy day at Awin’s London office for media house publishers to provide them with guidance and support in implementing affiliate strategies. One of the key themes that was discussed again and again throughout the event was how to go about disclosing commercial links in content.  

Huge publisher sites like these are increasingly turning to our channel as a means of diversifying and increasing their own revenues. Just last week, Buzzfeed’s CEO Jonah Peretti was extolling the virtues of affiliate as a contributing factor to their shift into profitability. 

If the affiliate industry is to truly capitalise on this increased interest in its performance model from such massive publisher businesses, it is beholden on us to provide leadership on issues like ad disclosure. By doing so we can help ensure that users continue to have faith in the online services they refer to for information and guidance.  

Two decades after Bill Gates first coined the phrase ‘content is king’, the WHO’s current ‘infodemic’ battle makes clear it is nothing without trust and transparency. 

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