The Impact of Natural Disasters on Digital Marketing

When natural disasters strike, they can leave massive devastation in their wake. In 2018, there have been 11 natural disasters that have totaled over $1 billion each in damages. The wildfires in California are the most recent event to capture attention across the country and pose a threat not only to lives and property, but also to the livelihood of businesses in the impacted areas.

As a stark contrast to the fires that plagued Napa Valley and Sonoma just a few months ago, the fires in Southern California have left most evacuated hotels and resorts damage-free. These events highlight an important theme to understand – when it comes to responding to natural disasters in digital media, each scenario has its own details that should inform a specific response by advertisers. Successful digital marketers are experts at developing and deploying a nuanced and carefully crafted strategy for each marketing channel.


A large part of most display campaigns is retargeting – attempting to serve an ad to a customer that has shown interest in booking a hotel room. That interest may stem from many different signals depending on the campaign, but searches for a location can often be a signal that a customer is looking to plan a trip to that location.

However, in times of a natural disaster, many customers are searching for news and updates with no intention of planning a trip to the area. Because many Display campaigns are also charged on a cost per impression basis, this can lead to skyrocketing costs for advertisers who continue to serve Display ads that leverage location-based retargeting. In this case, it is typically a best practice to pause these campaigns until the damage and news coverage of the event has slowed.

Paid Search

Similar to Display, there are a variety of targeting techniques Paid Search advertisers can use to serve their ads to customers with intent. Because many of the main search engines (such as Google, MSN, and Yahoo) are also key news sites, there’s a chance of search ads for hotels being served to users who are searching for a news headline and not their next vacation destination.

Since most Paid Search campaigns operate on a cost per click basis, the risk for inefficient spend is lower than Display. However, many advertisers will choose to pause campaigns that may be similarly affected by surges in traffic of customers ultimately looking for news and not planning to book a trip.


When it comes to Social, some similar trends occur where users can be served a travel advertisement without intention to travel to the destination. However, the negative impact for Social is not just inflated spend, but also damage to a brand’s reputation.

The perception of being served an ad on a social network during a natural disaster can often be seen as insensitive on the part of the advertiser. This can lead to negative comments and sentiment towards the ad and the advertiser, which can have a lasting impact not only on the campaigns but also the overall brand reputation. As a best practice, many advertisers choose to pause all marketing related to hotels in affected regions during times of natural disasters.


Metasearch is quite a unique channel in how it operates during times of natural disasters. Because of the nature of the metasearch auction, users that engage with Metasearch ads are looking for a specific hotel and itinerary. The ads do not feature ad copy that could potentially be confused with news updates, and the risk of inefficient spend is very low. Additionally, if there are any properties that were damaged during the natural disaster, when the property ceases to have room availability, they will be removed from the auction automatically.

Another common occurrence during natural disasters is families being displaced from their homes. With the fires in Southern California, more than 250,000 people were ordered to evacuate from their homes. In these cases, many people will be looking for hotels rooms and hotels in the area that are open for business. These rooms are frequently booked through metasearch. As a best practice, advertisers should monitor their campaigns closely, but leave open, undamaged hotels live in the auction so that customers are able to find them.

Create a Plan

As mentioned in a previous blog post about responding to natural disasters, the most important thing advertisers can do is create a clear plan to implement the necessary actions across teams. Each natural disaster is different and each response plan will need to be adjusted accordingly. Understanding each channel and auction should be the solid foundation to build best practices and plans for the future.

We hope this short list of ideas will help you prepare your marketing team to respond quickly in the wake of a natural disaster. If you have any additional tips or personal experiences you’d like to share, leave a comment below.