‘Nothing quite like being forced’: Publishers whip up quicker, cheaper ad products for advertisers

In the wake of the past five months, advertisers are now increasingly forcing publishers to think and work within tighter windows.

With coronavirus still wreaking havoc on the economy, social unrest scrambling consumer sentiment and marketers pressured to prove their spending is driving results, many are focusing their spending on programs happening just a few weeks out.  

This has been especially tough on TV broadcasters and magazine publishers, who typically sell their ad space months in advance. And it has forced all kinds of publishers to find new kinds of programs to sell to brands, which can be executed quickly.

Instead of branded content that can take weeks of back and forth, Trusted Media Brands has been offering brands a chance to integrate their content into existing editorial pages; instead of accepting that they couldn’t execute elaborate branded content productions, The Players Tribune and Minute Media pivoted to content shot by athletes on their cell phones; and Leaf Group, rather than scrap an event sponsorship deal, whipped up an alternative program built around instructional content and product sampling in under two weeks.

Some of these new offerings were born of necessity. But publishers think they should continue to deliver revenue even after life gets back to normal.

“It forced us to look at business differently,” said Lora Gier, evp of sales and marketing at Trusted Media Brands, which owns titles including Reader’s Digest and Taste of Home. “As far as I’m concerned, we can continue to offer both [when things go back to normal].”

Not every advertiser is stuck in a short-term mindset; in categories such as auto or home or even travel, brands whose wares people take a long time to commit to buying are spending.

But even in late August, five months after sales leaders asked their teams to focus on “singles and doubles,” quick deals usually focused around a site’s display or pre-roll inventory, short-term planning remains pervasive. Brands that might have asked for insights on consumer sentiment or needs once a month or once a quarter are now taking them on a weekly basis, Gier said; and some advertisers are asking publishers to shorten the cancellation windows in their contracts.

As the pandemic has worn on, many publishers looked for other ways to win client budgets while accommodating this short-term thinking.

Some were created to preserve deals threatened by the coronavirus. Earlier this spring, Leaf Group, which operates vertical lifestyle sites including Hunker and Well + Good as well as in-person events including the Other Art Fair, had to scramble to reimagine a sponsorship with Bombay Sapphire.

Instead of being able to put the gin in front of possible customers as the presenting sponsor of a series of in-person events scheduled all over the country, Leaf reworked Bombay’s sponsorship around a content and sampling program that used Leaf properties including Hunker and its e-commerce platform Society6.

That program, which came together in just two weeks, will make a good war story, Leaf Group svp of advertising and brand partnerships Jay Ku said. But it also became something Ku thinks Leaf can take to future advertisers. It is currently discussing a similar version of the program with a tea brand, Ku said, using Well + Good for content and Society6 for sampling distribution.  

“There’s nothing quite like being forced to do something,” Ku said.

These new, speedier offerings have to compete with publishers’ existing ones; Trusted Media Brands, for example, offers advertisers both custom content and the quicker integrations.

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These packages still typically command lower amounts of money. Trusted Media Brands’ edit integrations, for example, do not cost the same as custom content, Gier said, who declined to share specific prices.

But they can be turned around a lot faster, which allows brands to remain in front of consumers and Trusted Media Brands to generate revenue more quickly than a custom content campaign might.

Many publishers said they think that the bumpiest parts of the year are behind them, and they are glad they’ve identified new products they can sell to partners.

But they remain cautious: “Until a campaign runs in full, I don’t count a single dime,” Gier said.

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