‘Exhaustion around the pandemic’: Parenting publishers find value in a break from COVID coverage

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After a year in which parenting publishers adapted content strategies to help their audiences deal with everything from kids stuck at home to new moms isolated from their communities, publishers like Meredith’s Parents and Some Spider Studios’ portfolio of parenting outlets are shifting the tone of their pandemic coverage as its impact on parents have become inseparable from everyday reality.

Trixie Ferguson Gray, svp and head of creative agency Charlotte at Some Spider Studios — which owns Scary Mommy, The Dad and Fatherly — said they are no longer referencing the pandemic in branded content unless a client requests it. This shift began at the end of last summer, in response to audiences wanting “a break from the wall-to-wall coverage of COVID,” she said.

At media agency Essence, the pandemic is part of the conversation in the creative process, but the topic does not necessarily appear in ad messaging which instead focuses on the effect the pandemic has on parents’ lives and how a brand can help, according to Amber Benson, vp of client services at Essence.

“We can talk about what parents are going through, without naming COVID-19,” she said. “There’s a little bit of exhaustion around the pandemic.”

Over the past few months, advertisers have started “updating their messaging to reflect the sentiments and behaviors of the past year,” said Leah Meranus, U.S. chief media officer at Dentsu X and 360i, in an emailed statement. “Advertisers are embracing the realities of parenting during a pandemic, with themes like mealtime prep, parenting while working and stress at the “front and center in recent ads,” she said.

However, as the world finds its way to a new normal with kids going back to school and vaccinations making group gatherings possible again, parenting publishers will have to adjust to address their audiences’ evolving stresses and need for entertainment outlets.

Traffic is down year-over-year for some parenting publishers, after a surge in readership when families sought information at the onset of the pandemic last year. Meredith’s Parents’ total unique visitors is down 18% year-over-year, to 5 million in February 2021, according to Comscore. Some Spider Studios, which focuses on social distribution, had their unique viewers drop from nearly 20 million in March 2020 to 8.3 million in February 2021 across Facebook and YouTube, according to Tubular Labs data.

Most recently, Parents’ partnered with MyLife, Meredith’s meditation app, to provide short activities to support busy moms with stress and anxiety. The seven-part program offers exercises, meditations and yoga. According to a recent Meredith study released in February on the “Post-Normal Consumer,” 39% of moms said their mental health declined during the pandemic.

The volume of requests for proposals from Parents’ clients both new and existing are up year-over-year, according to Marla Newman, evp of digital sales at Meredith, due to “extra attention” on addressing the needs of parents during this time through service content such as resources to support parental mental health and finances as well as keeping children entertained.

For The Dad, the focus this year will be on creating more “interactive, experiential communities” to bring people together virtually, according to editor-in-chief Joel Willis. This comes after editorial initiatives around pets and gaming content resonated with The Dad’s audience in the last year, according to Willis. Specifically, The Dad will create more initiatives like Facebook groups to engage communities around home/DIY, food and sports topics.

As the world opens back up, parents’ lives “will continue to be complicated, but in ways that used to stress parents out before,” like issues of work-life balance, commutes and the burden of social occasions, Benson said. Those shifts will inform publishers’ coverage.

When Fatherly noticed more readers were heading to its health & science section last year, editor-in-chief Tyghe Trimble hired another reporter for the vertical. Now, coverage is shifting away from topics like epidemiology and virology and to more core areas of science coverage, like other flu vaccines and the impact of the anti-vaxxer movement on parents and their children. 

As consumers’ travel habits change, Some Spider Studios expects more ad revenue from categories including travel, food and finance to increase this year compared to last year, according to Janine Krause, svp of advertising sales at Some Spider Studios.

At Some Spider Studios, direct sales revenue was up 35% in 2020 compared to 2019 — primarily due to a multi-million dollar increase in spending from the CPG category, according to a spokesperson. Overall revenue was $35 million, up 27% in 2020 compared to 2019, the spokesperson said, and the company is on track to get $50 million in revenue in 2021.

Despite those expected spending increases, not all advertisers are moving more money to parenting publications. According to PMG and Essence, the agencies’ clients spending on parenting publications has remained flat. “When we communicate with parents we’re also thinking about content and places that feed them as individuals,” Benson said. As a result, parenting publishers are pressed to keep a finger on the pulse of their audiences’ interests and to parlay those insights to advertisers.

Some Spider Studios ramped up the volume of surveys it conducted on consumer sentiments and purchase behavior, primarily on Facebook, to understand its audience. The surveys receive anywhere up to 2,000 responses within 24 hours.

The research publishers are conducting and sharing with advertisers is valuable to “get a full picture of the seismic shifts in what is important to people and their lives,” Benson said. Transitioning back to life in person will be challenging for parents, and publishers and brands “need to be thoughtful to stay in sync” with this audience, she said.

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