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  • Writer's pictureLiz Hayes

Case studies: McClatchy, The Seattle Times & The Denver Post share branded content best practices

Updated: Aug 27, 2021

As a seller, you know how critically important it is for you to listen to your client in order to come up with a solution that helps advertisers reach their marketing goals, while bringing in revenue for your local media outlet.

In addition to understanding what it is your local advertisers are looking for, and with a few pieces of advice from some influential players in the media industry, we’re going to help you close some branded content deals. Bonus if you use our turnkey lifestyle series as a jumping off point!

We were so fortunate to have sales experts from McClatchy, The Seattle Times and The Denver Post join The Branded Content Project on our Big Branded Call last week to share their best practices on selling this type of branded content. Here are some key takeaways from our conversation that you can begin to implement today. And don’t worry, we’re here to help you throughout the entire process!

Listen To Your Client

Digital marketing is not a one-size-fits-all solution for every advertiser. Clients today are more aware than ever of the goals they want to achieve and the message they need to deliver to their customers - and how to do it. Some clients are big on having deliverable metrics, but branded content is a brand awareness and engagement play - it’s not traditional advertising. This needs to be expressed to every client (Need help with this? We have new advertiser explainer videos you can share!) so they understand what you’re offering.

Remember, you’re selling your audience - an audience that your clients can’t reach without you. Your unique value proposition will help advertisers understand that they need you to reach their advertising goals.

Take Advantage of Hot Topics

McClatchy launched The Branded Content Project’s Cannabis Weekly series in several of its California markets about six weeks ago. They found success immediately thanks to creating a sense of urgency and providing a solution that cannabis dispensaries and retailers need. It also helps that cannabis is an explosive topic.

“It was a very ripe vertical for the picking. These guys - anybody who is in a state where it is recreationally legal can tell you - that they can’t do everything. So anything you bring to them, they are very much in tune to listening,” said Curt Jacobi, McClatchy’s strategic business development director.

Cannabis Weekly is a weekly series of long-form articles that resonate with the cannabis user demographic. McClatchy targeted specific prospects - some of which spanned multiple markets - and according to Jacobi, they were a quick sell. McClatchy is using The Branded Content Project’s collections - which offers four pieces of content, and then up to 20 articles once you click into the unique viewer. In order to offer extra value, McClatchy includes a custom article from the advertiser too.

“I love the options there because it gives client options. We are trying to get people to see the extreme value in us creating the content, because there is value in that and it just increases the stickiness of the program,” Jacobi said.

Another key element in securing sponsors right away was letting clients know that McClatchy was talking to several other dispensaries too - so they needed an answer within a few days. Creating that sense of urgency with a specific deadline for the opportunity really helped nail down the deals, Jacobi said.

“We actually have “presented by” in some of the promo ads and we’ve passed along that value to the client and what that does is it gives credibility to the program as well. So it’s not just Sacramento, The Bee putting their stamp of approval on the program, it’s the consumer that sees, ‘Oh wow you’ve got Humble Root, you’ve got Medallion Wellness associated with this’,” Jacobi said.

Make Your Expertise Known

The Seattle Times was quick to secure sponsors for Cannabis Weekly, Active Aging, Finances FYI and Car Care, four of ten Branded Content Project lifestyle series being offered. According to Chandler Downs, director of strategic and branded content partnerships, customization was a major component to solidifying sales. In fact, when presenting the auto series Car Care to a large client, they were careful to listen to the client’s initial uncertainty and then come back to the table with the perfect solution.

“They had key audiences they wanted to reach. They wanted to specifically talk about auto consignment and do some education in that space, so for them this was a little bit more rigid than they wanted,” Downs said.

They were adamant about the client getting the awareness and consistent visibility they needed through Car Care, but decided to make it two articles a month from the series, rather than weekly - and incorporate a quarterly custom piece produced by the Seattle Times Content Studio.

“That’s what we call their anchor article where it provides the education for audiences about what auto consignment is, and for every Car Care article, we’re linking back to that article,” she said.

Downs says giving the advertiser more flexibility, while still pressing for a solution that she knew would help them reach their brand goals, allowed the client to feel more comfortable.

The Seattle Times has also created fully customizable sponsored series focusing on travel in Washington and highlighting different destinations within the area. They’ve also been able to sell Cannabis Weekly - a hot commodity in the state - but they sold it as Cannabis Monthly so they could be more selective with content and focus on the Pacific Northwest.

Creating custom mockups was essential to each sale because it’s important for the client to see their specific branding on a page before they will commit.

“Spend some time creating at least a page proof or banner ads so they’ll get the idea and see their brand in the experience,” she said.

Full Customization For Clients

The Denver Post has had a successful run with its Discover Colorado series sponsored by a HVAC company, who may not be the first client that would come to mind for a travel series.

“What we heard from them is 'we want to be in front of an audience that is really engaged, so give us a concept of what you think is going to get us the most engagement from your audience' - so that is exactly where we went with this series,” said Sean Stead, The Denver Post’s director of digital sales.

The time spent on the articles and click through rate is significantly higher than what they'd see if it was a series entirely focused on improving your AC unit this summer or your furnace this fall. The travel series is an effective way to speak to the audience, and in an area where outdoor recreation is major, The Denver Post can partner with a client while maintaining journalistic integrity, give the audience what they want, and provide value and a sponsorship opportunity to a client that wants to align their brand with all of that.

Stead says more companies are bringing on content managers and content creators, so blogs are more robust and engaging. He says it’s important to use that content in the partnership.

“It’s a great marriage with their team and our team to say 'how can we leverage this content you’re already creating in-house?' or 'can we create content that’s really specific to your organization?' So, one thing we’ve been doing more recently here is, as part of a content series, let’s take one article per month and really make that specific to your organization,” he said.

Getting direct quotes from the advertiser and incorporating those into the articles makes an advertiser feel special and positions them as an expert in their industry. They can then use it on their sites, creating a new element to the series.

Let’s Be Exclusive

While McClatchy was able to do a share of voice sponsorship for more than one sponsor for Cannabis Weekly, at The Denver Post and The Seattle Times, being able to offer series exclusivity has been a big selling point.

“Every time we walk through it, as we do the mockup for what an article is going to look like, we certainly want to point out they have 100% share of voice, nothing programmatic is going to come out of there,” Stead said. “We know, without a doubt, exactly what that page is going to look like.”

He said more recently they’ve been focusing on offering other elements, including videos and specific calls to action, or an ending paragraph about why the sponsor is proud to support the series. Instead of just providing the turnkey series, adding the elements about the client’s business that will be incorporated and getting eyeballs from key audiences is another selling point.

With Cannabis Weekly, a very competitive vertical, Jacobi knew it was too big of a sales opportunity to offer to just one client in their key California markets.

“At one of our properties we settled on three - so it’s being split by three sponsors. A couple others are being split by two and another we did roll solo. A lot of that is based on audience - how much exposure can we get for these sponsors,” Jacobi said.

They’ve also been able to use the technology that allows a reader to see one sponsor’s ads throughout their online journey. Seattle Times decided it was best to have one sponsor per category for its branded content series.

“We had that same situation where we had clients ask if we’d shown this to anyone else,” said Downs. “We had to make sure they wanted exclusivity and wanted to own it.”

Use Everything You’ve Got

Social media will be a large component of generating engagement and awareness. Stead says that with a headline impression you’ll get a .08 to .15 percent click through rate, versus 1 to 4 percent on social.

“I think that’s a really strong way to drive more traffic, drive more engagement on those articles,” Stead said.

He’s also talked to clients about running an email newsletter that isn’t about specials or sales, but is an advertiser branded content article that ran in the prestigious Denver Post - something that will attract more attention than an upcoming sale.

“Use that legitimacy. Use that brand that we're able to offer through our outlets. Use that to your benefit,” he said.

The Seattle Times invests a large portion of the sale to Facebook targeted ads, which gives them the ability to reach the audiences advertisers need. They also offer a price break to clients who commit to an annual investment. These are great best practices for outlets of any size to use.

Create a Sense of Urgency

“I always say, sellers sell. What we did is really create a sense of urgency internally and in the marketplace. We talked about this three weeks before we had a kick off. Kind of role playing through that conversation with the team helped a lot,” said Jacobi.

The McClatchy teams also told their potential clients about the series immediately and gave them a short deadline, knowing there would be other cannabis retailers interested.

“We had people during the kick off texting their clients and we had somebody buy three properties before I even hung up the call,” he said.

Giving clients a deadline and letting them know that you are talking to other advertisers will get them to move quickly and help you lock in the sale. The advertiser will also feel special if you let them know you’re offering this exclusive opportunity to them first, giving them the chance to align their brand with quality content their audiences will love.

It’s also helpful to let sellers and advertisers know when the series is launching. They should be informed that this is happening whether they’re on board or not. Stead always tells The Denver Post’s sponsors the exact date the series will launch and that it will be a 12 month program. This adds more legitimacy to the sales pitch.

"The fact of the matter is this: if you want to close your year strong or set up 2022 for success, you have to be closing deals now," said Jared Merves, Distributed Media Lab's chief revenue officer.

The Branded Content Project can help you close the year strong and set up recurring monthly revenue for the year ahead. Our ten lifestyle series are an amazing jumping off point, and we provide custom content solutions too.

Have a custom content idea you'd like to pitch to a client now? Let's get you involved! Contact us at


The Branded Content Project is designed through a strategic partnership between the Local Media Association, the Local Media Consortium, and the Facebook Journalism Project to help facilitate additional growth, engagement, and revenue success for more publishers of all shapes and sizes.

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