If 2020 taught us anything, it’s that life as we know it can drastically change in a moment, wreaking havoc in our personal and professional lives. To remain vital during a global pandemic, successful local media organizations learned to pivot, adapt and innovate in order to weather the storm of the unexpected that came with COVID-19.
Branded content proved to be a strong revenue generator for publishers willing to work together to create a successful branded content strategy. Recently, publisher members of The Branded Content Project took the opportunity to reflect on the past year sharing what they’re proud of and what they wish they could have done differently during this challenging period of time.
Their findings highlight the need for collaboration between all departments within a media organization, being resilient and coming up with new ways to do business in uncertain times. Many local media outlets discovered that the pandemic actually offered the perfect opportunity for advertisers to tell their stories through branded content, triggering a new revenue stream at a time when it was desperately needed.
“Overall, the best takeaway we got from 2020 was we have to work as one, as one whole unit with different departments to really move the needle. I think that was probably the most significant advance that we made,” said Paul Turkavage, national digital manager of the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Buy-in from multiple stakeholders was paramount to the Inquirer’s success this past year, Turkavage said. Multiple departments realized that it was in advertisers' best interest to tell their story through branded content. But if they could have done something differently, it would have been to be more proactive from the get go.
“Instead of telling brands and businesses that they needed to get their message out now more than ever, we were complacent as a sales force,” he said.
Rather than immediately going after budgets to help clients inform and educate the public, Turkavage said the sales team was apologetic for reaching out during a difficult time and asking for sales.
Allison McCann, director of sales development at MaineToday Media, is proud of her team’s ability to completely retool and adapt to a world where in-person gatherings suddenly became off-limits. Before the pandemic hit, the paper would typically get a couple hundred people at live events. When everything went virtual, they were pleasantly surprised to see their audience growth skyrocket within the new format. McCann says this success has led to three impressive developments for the newspaper.
“We inspired the newsroom to come to us and say hey, how can we do some of these things? Secondly, we have organizations coming to us asking us to host their events for them because we've set the standard in our communities, and third we actually had a sponsor come to us and say in 2021 we would like to purchase branded content with you but through an event series.”
A challenge she identified is the difficulty in creating a buzz when making a successful branded content sale, since water cooler discussions are no longer possible with everyone working from home. That being said, once the first rep unlocks a new revenue stream, they’re hooked and quickly become the evangelist for the team.
Martin Alfaro, director of business development of AL DIA News Media, is most proud of gaining more confidence in developing branded content products during this exceptionally difficult year.
"Having this opportunity to tie branded content to our business plan, our multimedia approach, we definitely produced the most branded content that we ever have in 2020," Alfaro said.
Alfaro packaged branded content with live-streamed events and traditional advertising, which hadn't been done in the past for the organization. They've recently hired a new employee to focus solely on branded content strategy, emphasizing their dedication to this emerging type of advertising.
In fact, he wishes they could dedicate an entire team to branded content, but that isn't always easy with limited resources. He's also focusing on collaboration with other media outlets, which will foster new opportunities and growth.
It’s well known that news organizations have to wrestle with the invisible divide between business and editorial. But according to Brian Perry, Minnpost’s director of advertising and sponsorship, learning to work together and come to a mutual understanding is what he’s most proud of in the past year.
When he first approached the editorial team about doing sponsored content, they were very opposed to having someone else’s material on their site, but after careful explanation about distinguishing paid work from news there was a significant shift toward mutual understanding.
“The relationship we built with editorial is a lot stronger and I think it’s made us a better organization,” he said.
Now, editorial is coming up with content ideas for sales. Perry was also able to deepen relationships with big clients by offering sponsored content as a new way to reach target audiences at a time when they really needed to get their stories told.
“A lot of them were doing some cause marketing and they like to promote some of their work in the community. They loved the idea of being in our shell but then being able to publish some content on their own.”
He said it’s made their business partnerships stronger and created excitement for long-term clients.
If Willy Grant, director of digital at Great West Newspapers, could have done anything differently from last year, it would have been to start selling branded content sooner. The Canadian company has done exceptionally well, selling 11 Branded Content Project lifestyle series in different markets within just two months.
“Our reps have really engaged in this product," Grant said. "It offers a unique opportunity for business leaders in the community to partner with us and help expand our content on our websites. It allows us to position those advertisers in a unique way that looks a lot different than a display ad.”
As a result, her sales reps have gained confidence which has led to additional sales and revenue for the team. The excitement is leading to a great emphasis on branded content as a sales strategy, which Grant says is a smart play for the organization.
2020 was an exceptionally challenging year for local media outlets that rely on robust advertising sales to keep afloat. Virtual gatherings will continue to grow and evolve, brands will still need to get their messages across, and local media outlets will be there to help them reach massive audiences. Branded content proved to be a significant revenue driver for those willing to work together to create successful strategies.
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.