News publishers new tactic: Emphasize the good news to lure back coronavirus-weary advertisers

In trying to sell ads against their coronavirus coverage, news publishers have gone through a Kubler Ross-esque progression. First, they got angry that there was zero appetite for direct sponsorship of news; next, they tried to minimize the presence of words like coronavirus in their stories. Now they are trying to focus on the positive, highlighting packages of stories of civic, economic and public recovery, and they appear to be having some success.

The Boston Globe has gotten one advertiser to sponsor a private Slack channel it built to help small business owners share information and get answers to questions about things such as the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program, and is talking to a second advertiser about building another one, Boston Globe Media chief commercial officer Kayvan Salmanpour said.

Time, which has focused much of its Time 100 Talks programming on how people are coping and recovering from coronavirus, has secured more than $1 million in sponsorship revenue for those talks over the past several weeks, global chief revenue officer Viktoria Degtar said. A separate collection of stories, “Apart, Not Alone,” about people who are helping people cope with the pandemic, landed State Farm as a sponsor.

A video series NowThis News launched last month, “In This Together,” which highlights the ways that people are getting through this, has attracted several sponsors.  

And later this month, Gannett will be launching a large package across its USA Today Network exploring the recovery of the American economy at both the national and the local level. Local editors have been encouraged to write op-eds about their commitment to their local communities, and to produce sidebars focused on the local economy, per Poynter’s Rick Edmonds.

Not every publisher is framing its pitches to advertisers in this way. While seemingly every advertiser’s message – and every publisher’s pitch – focused on themes like relief and support for frontline workers in late March and early April, a slightly narrower band of publishers can offer this kind of coverage to brands.

“I wouldn’t say it’s in every RFP,” said Steven Bloom, managing director of enterprise partnerships at Omnicom USA. “But there’s definitely a market for these. It’s a logical progression from the immediate relief [theme].”

Bloom said he’s noticed more advertisers investing in campaigns oriented around themes like recovery in the past few weeks. And while national advertisers are interested in spending, in the near term, the publishers that are best situated to win those budgets are those that can speak to local communities. “The recovery is going to be unequal,” Bloom said. “There’s going to be varying degrees of recovery [from market to market].”

In the early days following the spread of coronavirus, many advertisers paused their spending, in large part because the creative assets and campaigns they’d planned to roll out suddenly felt tone-deaf or inappropriate.

Once they came back, many settled on packages that focused on the heroes battling the virus.

Local publishers benefitted. A Boston Globe package saluting the nurses on the front lines of the effort drove more sponsorship revenue than any special package in the Globe’s history, Salmanpour said, partly because the Globe’s sales team was able to get both national and local advertisers involved.

“Anything that’s about supporting or highlighting an important community,” Salmanpour said. “Packaging it so there’s small price packages and large price packages, and having the whole team rally around it, and have a give-back element in it, that works.”

Over the past few weeks, however advertiser interest has shifted. “It’s not about the hero thing anymore,” said Josh Brandau, the chief revenue officer of the Los Angeles Times. “It’s about what we can do to reopen the economy.”

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Brandau said that a number of categories that had paused their spending, such as automotive, have begun to come back, and they are most interested in campaigns that explain what is going on. “It’s almost an awareness thing,” Brandau said. “It’s more, ‘Here’s what we’ve done to make this safe.’”

That service-oriented goal also allows some publishers to frame themselves as providing service and value to their readers. “No brand has come to us asking about ‘recovery and rallying,’” said Viktoria Degtar, Time’s global chief revenue officer. “We have been in the market ensuring that brands see the value or utility we provide them.”

In the case of Time’s coronavirus newsletter, for example, Goldman Sachs had a great deal of branded content that it wanted to distribute, and the newsletter provided a great vehicle and environment for that content, Degtar said.

The publishers that are able to whip up sponsorship opportunities quickly will benefit most, at a moment when brands are trying to be nimble in their ad spending.

“In this environment, we need to reevaluate the speed at which our team receives, responds and creates opportunities,” Degtar said. “What was a year is now a month, what was a week is now a day, what was a day is now a few hours.”

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