Hunting for ad growth, publishers target corporate social responsibility budgets

The chiefs behind many corporations today are trying harder than ever before to make their businesses appear likable and conscientious. And the sales teams of news publishers are responding accordingly.

Publishers looking for new ways to tap into marketers’ budgets are increasingly targeting their corporate social responsibility divisions, which fund research and spearhead programs. CSR initiatives might focus on the environment, gender equality, education or economic opportunity.

Corporate social responsibility campaigns have been identified as a top opportunity for Group Nine’s sales teams, NowThis president Athan Stephanopoulos said. His hope is that Group Nine’s work for companies CSR efforts can lead to more direct advertising relationships with them.

And video-focused publisher ATTN has had so much success in this arena that it has sought to promote its branded content and creative services as a “must-buy” for companies seeking to highlight their socially responsible activities. “We’ve really set up the business to have a defensible niche there,” ATTN co-founder Matthew Segal said. “It’s how we purposely structured our business.”

The Guardian, which recently vowed not to accept advertising from the fossil fuel industry, has a sales executive focusing purely on clients seeking to tell stories about sustainability.

After years on the fringes, corporate social responsibility divisions have started to become more visible parts of the largest corporations. In 2005, 64% of the Global Fortune 500 published a report on their corporate social responsibility activities, according to KPMG. By 2015, that percentage had grown to 92%. In 2018 corporations spent $20 billion on corporate social responsibility initiatives, according to research conducted for UNESCO.

At first, this kind of spending was done mostly to ward off government regulation, said Susan McPherson, the founder of communications consultancy McPherson Strategies. “You would do the bare minimum to keep them out of your way,” she said.

But the internet has made it easier for consumers to learn about how corporations behave, and social media has led to the sharing of information about businesses’ missteps and misdeeds. That’s led some corporations to put their corporate social responsibility efforts more front and center in their marketing efforts, said Annie Granatstein,  Edelman’s creative newsroom director.

“CSR is becoming more central to brands’ entire way of marketing and communicating,” Granatstein said. “Publishers are thinking about this as they’re thinking about how they can get more of brands’ ad dollars.”

The marketing budgets for corporate social responsibility projects are comparable in size to the ones available for branded content campaigns, Segal said.

But companies’ CSR needs differ from their other marketing needs in a few key ways. Whereas a retailer might wish to concentrate its spending to be during big shopping seasons, CSR activity happens all year, and especially in connection to key dates like International Women’s Day or Earth Day.

The budgets for these campaigns are not always housed in the same place. Whereas a company’s media agency might once have controlled most of its ad expenditures, spending has become more “diffuse” as corporate social responsibility messaging has become more important, Granatstein said.

Today, a media agency might control only about 60% of the spending related to corporate social responsibility, with the remaining 40% spread between a communications agency and an internal company unit. Segal said members of his sales team hunt for ways to capitalize on these CSR campaigns, spending about half of their time speaking to corporations’ marketing teams and the rest with their internal communications teams.

“The sellers [at Group Nine] know that when they’re talking to brands, one of the points of entry is to be focusing on the CSR groups,” Stephanopoulos said.

Paying attention to corporate social responsibility efforts also gives some smaller publishers a chance to scramble the list of contenders that companies typically hire for advertising and branded content campaigns. And the rebel mystique that a large publisher like Vice has, for example, might work against it in attempting to win CSR work, Segal said.

But like other branded content or advertising campaigns, corporate social responsibility campaigns must deliver on  the metrics. Granatstein said it’s common for companies to measure the reputation of their brand before and after a campaign to see if it moved the needle in that way.

And companies typically pick the publishers with the largest distribution. Publishers “can be awareness vehicles,” McPherson said, “if they have massive footprints.”

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