As brand advertising budgets get pinched, publishers pivot to cater to direct response

Economic downturns hurt all areas of advertising, but not equally. Direct-response budgets tend to hold up far better than brand-building efforts. That’s led publishers to shift their emphasis to getting closer to the transaction.

The Washington Post has launched self-serve ad products targeted at direct response and direct-to-consumer advertisers, a market that continued spending during the pandemic offering door-to-door services with millions of people at home. It’s also running classes to help DTC brands become more mature marketers in topics like how to use audience insights. Sports publisher Barstool lets smaller DTC brands run campaigns on its new editorial products at a lower rate than previously.

Within its commerce business, BuzzFeed is driving more direct relationships with retailers, said Nilla Ali, BuzzFeed’s svp of commerce. For home decor and furniture company Wayfair in April, BuzzFeed used social media, newsletter channels and on-site promotions to push commercial content to readers, increasing the brand’s monthly sales by 362% year-over-year. During this time, she said, publishers can look at not only selling ad campaigns featuring commerce opportunities but how to include storytelling and the discoverability of new brands and products in those campaigns.

“Marketers are more involved at the coalface of selling, necessity is the mother of all invention,” said one global magazine publishing executive. “If we can start justifying [marketing] by showing the clicks to the site and help sell products, that builds longer-term partnerships. We want to be a more important partner in the buying process.”

As the messages from brands about helping people through the virus have taken on a hollow ring and attention turns to driving revenue, selling products is of primary importance. That’s not to say all campaigns focussed on brand-building objectives have been on hold, but the number has greatly reduced. And to make themselves helpful, even indispensable, publishers flex their services to adapt to a changing market. 

This magazine publisher has also built more performance-driving ad products, one ad unit displays a carousel of retailers’ products during a 50%-off sale, for instance. Putting single products in these units used to be the reserve of the big U.S. retailers, but now mid-size U.S. and U.K. retailers are buying them too, said the publisher. To help drum up interest, the publisher is more flexible with the conditions of the ad buy, like charging more for the unit but offering fewer conversion guarantees or increasing the minimum spend but driving higher performance. It’s still working out the optimum benchmarks for the market climate.      

“[Brands] have had marketing budgets on hold and are bringing them back online — we can see the spend increasing — and they’re asking us to help them put a value on marketing spend,” said the publishing executive. “This current crunch is still about managing balance sheets and a cash-positive position.”

These are tentative seeds of optimism. Partly, publisher sources say, most people working today are doing so because they are also in a good position. May is beginning to look up as marketers realized what they needed to say and spend. In the U.K., the IAB estimates that June spending will be down around 16% versus last year.

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“During this time I have been more receptive to a broader array of media owners,” said Lawrence Dodds, client director at Universal McCann London. “Some media owners have a lot of [audience] insight, some have innovation, some offer training. All of them tend to focus on where their strengths are.”

Publishers still face an uphill battle trying to compete with Facebook and Google for performance marketing budgets. “Facebook and Google have both been heavily pushing their shopping and commerce products,” added Dodds.

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