Media Briefing: Publishers use proprietary research to pitch prospective advertisers

This Media Briefing covers the latest in media trends for Digiday+ members and is distributed over email every Thursday at 10 a.m. ET. More from the series →

Research as the pitch

This past weekend at SXSW, The Atlantic’s publisher and CRO Alice McKown unveiled the company’s latest offering from its marketing research division, Atlantic Insights, meant to increase the publisher’s image as an expert on C-suite executives.

Called The Lead Index, The Atlantic conducted a survey of 500 C-suite leaders with the help of third-party research firm Beresford Research, to understand top challenges, opportunities and topics of interest on the minds of business decision makers. 

While the report is available in a downloadable guide for anyone to parse through at their leisure, a use case for the data produced from this research is to make the publisher’s sales pitches to advertisers more attractive, according to McKown.

“It helps open doors and have real conversations [with clients] and lead with these insights,” said McKown in an interview. “Then, it can actually be used as the base of the branded content that we create or the event that we build with them.”

Over the past year, a number of publishers including Forbes and Bloomberg have further invested in their research and insights teams with the hopes that peppering industry knowledge and audience data into their sales pitches would win over prospective advertisers or increase the deals drawn up with existing clients.

But the cost of research isn’t cheap and as publishers’ upper-funnel brand consideration plays in the competitive ad market, being able to calculate ROI could be little more than guesswork.

Research as upper-funnel ad sales tactic

In 2023, Forbes launched its Forbes Research division and relaunched Forbes Insights business, expanding into topics like sustainability and AI. “Research is expensive. Those are hard figure costs,” Forbes CRO Sherry Phillips told Digiday in December.

This expansion included producing two global surveys on both of those subjects with insights from more than 1,000 C-suite executives from companies with $1 billion in annual revenue or more. “I think it really empowered the sales team to be more knowledgeable and more educated in these [priority] areas [including sustainability and AI]. And it gave us, not only new sectors, but also new clients to talk to, particularly in the B2C space,” Phillips said back in December.

Janett Haas, svp of research and insights at Forbes, declined to share how much money was initially invested into these divisions, but that her team has already recouped it both through editorial applications of the data and by feeding the ad sales funnel. “We’ve also convened marketing and brand leaders at private, invitation-only events to discuss trends from Forbes Research on key sectors,” she said. 

McKown said that at a base level, insights from The Lead Index will help inform The Atlantic’s first-party data product Beacon, but the return on this investment will come from the ad sales applications generated from the research as well.

Bloomberg Media sellers center their pitches to advertisers on research and insights, so much so that Mike Wong, Bloomberg Media’s North America head of sales, said that a table stakes requirement for new hires on his team is that they have comprehensive knowledge of data and are able to use insights in a conversation with advertisers.

Therefore, Bloomberg will circumstantially front the cost of research conducted even before a deal is finalized and without the requirement that the advertiser commits to a campaign at all, Wong said. But that’s only if the research conducted for a prospective client has the potential to generate insights that benefit the overall sector.

If that’s the case, Wong said his team would put together the data insights at no charge because “there is probably a long-term ROI in the thought leadership” that Bloomberg could repurpose in another client conversation down the line.

Buyers beware

Whether media buyers would pay more money to incorporate proprietary research in their campaigns is to be determined. While it might help a buyer determine which publisher is most knowledgeable on a subject, as a standalone, purchasable asset, research isn’t necessarily a hot commodity. 

Seth Hargrave, CEO of media buying agency Media Two Interactive, said he absolutely sees value in data and insights in evaluating where to place clients’ ad budgets in the publishing space, but it’s not “something that advertisers or buyers would be willing to pay for ad hoc or separately outside of the media investment.” 

That’s because on its own, Hargrave said his team will always be critical of inherent bias produced from a single-origin research report and will attempt to substantiate claims made by publishers in a sales pitch with independent research they conduct themselves.

A publisher like The Atlantic who partnered with Beresford to conduct the research and has that third-party validation does offer some “peace of mind,” Hargrave said. However, it’s still not enough to convince him outright to spend more without some due diligence in what the data can offer. 

“It’s more about what additional targeting capabilities does that open up for us? … At the end of the day, that’s going to result in a deeper level of investment. It may not be in the short run, but certainly in the long term, if [the insights] prove a positive return on ad spend for advertisers, [then buyers will consider spending more on research],” Hargrave said.

What we’ve heard

“A trend we were seeing in the market from our clients – particularly clients in finance and B2B – [was] over the last three-to-five years, [there] has been pretty significant investment … in producing their own high-quality [thought leadership] content [in-house] … Not being a publisher … they didn’t have an audience reading the content … We felt that there was an opportunity for publishers such as Dow Jones.”

— Katie Weber, svp of commercial strategy and head of financial services at The Wall Street Journal on Dow Jones’ new sales strategy centered on AI to help clients’ in-house marketing strategies.

Anticipated impact of AI search engines

This story has been updated to include a statement from Google.

Once Google’s generative AI-powered search engine rolls out, it could lead to an average search referral traffic loss of 25% to Raptive’s network of 5,000 publisher sites, according to a recent analysis by Raptive.

“If this moves forward with what we’re seeing in the current beta… a large number of creators would be out of business,” said Marc McCollum, evp of innovation at Raptive, which helps sites sell ads and provides other resources like SEO support.

In response to users’ queries, Google’s Search Generative Experience (SGE) — which rolled out in beta last May but has yet to be fully integrated — would generate an answer at the top of search results based on information gathered by Google’s web crawler, pushing links to publishers’ sites further down the page. 

A Google spokesperson said, “It’s premature to estimate the traffic impact of our SGE experiment as we continue to rapidly evolve the user experience and design, including how links are displayed. We’ll continue to prioritize approaches that send valuable traffic to publishers, and in fact, we are showing more links to sites with SGE in Search than before, creating new opportunities for content to be discovered.”

Raptive’s analysis was conducted last month. The company compared the results of about 1,000 queries and keywords that drive traffic to their top 125 sites in Google’s current search experience to the beta version of Google SGE — and used their own historical click-through rate data to predict what future click-through rates to Raptive’s sites would be from those keywords, McCollum said.

Josh Jaffe, president of media at Ingenio, said the impact of those traffic declines will depend on whether Google SGE becomes the default or opt-in search engine experience, as well as how much of a publisher’s search-driven content is time-sensitive versus evergreen. The goal for publishers will be to have their sites appear as one of the three links provided inside the SGE response to get the majority of referral traffic from the search results page, he said.

But this is just another example of publishers’ concerns around underperforming referral traffic sources. Platforms like Facebook and X are sending less and less traffic to publishers. And less referral traffic means less digital ad revenue. — Sara Guaglione

Numbers to know

2: The number of grievances alleged by the union representing journalists at The Wall Street Journal, which stated that the company violated its collective bargaining agreement when 17 reporters were laid off from the Washington, D.C. bureau on Feb. 1.

5: The number of finalists in this year’s Pulitzer Prizes for journalism out of 45 that disclosed using AI in researching, reporting or telling their submission.

11: The number of Deadspin staffers who were laid off this week after G/O Media sold the digital title to European digital media start-up Lineup Publishing.

What we’ve covered

Why publishers say Facebook News tab disappearing will have little impact on their social strategy: 

  • The Facebook News tab is going out not with a bang, but a whimper.
  • Five publishing execs told Digiday that at the end of the day, the News tab going away will have little impact on their social and audience development strategies.

Learn more about publishers’ current Facebook content distribution strategies here.

Q4’s stasis provided a launchpad for publishers’ Q1 advertising businesses:

  • The fourth quarter of 2023 wasn’t so bad for all publishers. 
  • In fact, overall the final three months of the year ended up being a period of “stabilized growth” for digital publishers’ advertising businesses, according to Boostr’s Q4 2023 Media Ad Sales Trend Report, which covered more than 100 U.S.-based digital media companies.

Read more about how publishers’ ad sales performed in Q4 here

Competition advocates urge further Privacy Sandbox delays: 

  • Amid heightened anticipation that the end of third-party cookies is near, sources are calling for a further hiatus in Google Chrome’s retiring support for them as the industry awaits the outcome of its ongoing antitrust trials.
  • Some stakeholders are concerned its Privacy Sandbox proposals are tactics meant to evade government censure that may arise from its multiple anticompetitive tussles with governments on either side of the Atlantic.   

See the latest cookiepocalypse updates here.

What we’re reading

Not all media start-ups are cracking under the ad market pressure

While The Messenger’s bright light winked out in a flash and other more established digital media companies are getting put on life support, there is a cohort of digital media start-ups that are rising to the challenge, reported The New York Times. Puck, Punchbowl News, The Ankler and Semafor have taken a more conservative approach to growth, which has helped them remain stable in a tumultuous time for the media industry.

AP breaks into commerce in new Taboola deal: 

The Associated Press is launching AP Buyline, its e-commerce brand that’s being powered by Taboola, according to Axios. Debuting next week, the site will start with recommendations in the personal finance category and will later expand into shopping categories like home products, beauty and fashion in April.

Billionaires buying media outlets isn’t a U.S.-only trend: 

French billionaire Bernard Arnault, who is the CEO of the champagne and luxury goods company LVMH, is working to build out his media empire. According to a report by The Wall Street Journal, Arnault is in talks to acquire French magazine, Paris Match, for the equivalent of $109 million. He already oversees a French financial publication, a daily newspaper and a classical radio station. 

Revenue was flat for Condé Nast in 2023, but revenue goals were still missed: 

According to Axios, Condé Nast missed its revenue goals in 2023, despite overall revenue remaining flat year over year. But a couple of bright spots stood out, including a 7% year over year increase in consumer revenue, a 19% year over year increase in events revenue and a 39% year over year increase in e-commerce revenue.

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