Data Versus Creativity: The Publisher Perspective
Industry insiders weigh in on one of the biggest debates in advertising.
When Walgreens launched a new loyalty program for its beauty lines in 2016, it coupled it with an advertising campaign to drive signups. As part of this campaign, it turned to the USA Today Network to reach its target audience: Women. What’s odd about picking the USA Today Network for this outreach? USA Today doesn’t have dedicated beauty vertical.
It didn’t matter.
USA Today’s content reaches “half of all women in America,” says Kelly Andresen, head of GET Creative, USA Today Network’s branded content studio. While the number is impressive, Andresen’s team used more than that one data point to convince Walgreens that they could drive the signups, even without the dedicated beauty space. Through the USA Today Network, her team had details about what beauty content would draw the most readers in, and what mix of content would be required in order to draw a signup.
There’s a philosophical battle within the advertising space. For some, data and analytic acolytes dictate where, when and how the online dollars are doled out based on the feedback of their research. Meanwhile, others still believe that creative teams should drive the concept before turning to the data to dictate placements.
Publishers, by and large, take a middle ground approach, allowing them to appease both needs dependent on what asks comes their way. However, it’s no longer simply selling advertisers on the size of the platform. Instead, it’s detailing just how well they know their audience, both from a data and creative standpoint. This requires an expertise in both tactics.
“Now we have really great capabilities to have best of both worlds,” says Andresen. A publisher’s place, she adds, is to provide insight into its audience, which the advertiser pays to access. For many larger publishers, understanding as much detail about who that audience is has become its own competitive advantage.
Bryan Kinkade, publisher of Afar Media, says he has seen the balance between what advertisers spend for technology and media flipped over the past few years. Prior to the rise of data-driven content, media buys dominated the budget that advertisers allocated. That dynamic is no longer the case as the technology to hone in on determining successful tactics trumps many other efforts.
For Afar, a travel publication, Kinkade says the brand has remained evenly balanced. In part, it’s due to the type of reader a travel publication typically draws. Its audience creates a predictable need since a traveler has very specific wants when circumnavigating the globe.
If a hotel looks to target travelers heading to Charleston, then Afar can handle that ask. But because it has also gleaned information from its readers, Kinkade and his team can go further, providing insight throughout the travel process. It can target readers with the right type of content at each stage of trip planning, focusing on what the reader would want in an ideal excursion. This includes targeting customers when they’re buying tickets, booking hotels, developing itineraries and purchasing supplies for the trip.
“We lead with the audience first,” says Kinkade. Advertisers pay to gain this analytical knowledge Afar has of its audience.
But because Afar has such an expertise in the travel space, it has provided opportunities as advertisers spend more on the technology side of the process. It’s the travel content development partner for Chase Ultimate Rewards programs, providing branded content, like trip planning and guides, that would interest readers that also have a significant amount of credit card miles to spend.
“We certainly have the eye and expertise on great travel content,” says Kinkade. “We also have a lot of insight on our own audience on how to use that content through headlines, social headlines [and] what content is needed at the time in the travel cycle.”
It fills a content knowledge gap that advertisers may not want to commit internal resources towards.
For The Foundry, Meredith’s branded content studio, it receives opportunities from clients through RFPs, which the specific project demands of can range widely. A manufacturer and appliance company may explain that its competitive advantage—and main selling point—for an appliance is the fact that it doesn’t have any gimmicks because of how reliable the tool works.
Through a social listening analysis, The Foundry may find what connects with readers from this standpoint is that the appliance lasts forever. While the appliance maker may know this, The Foundry helps define it from the audience’s viewpoint.
The Foundry then can use its creative team, who joins the process from the beginning, to design an editorial strategy around the concept. “Everybody is connected, and working with the same end goal,” says Adam Ochman, vice president of content and strategy at The Foundry.
One area where advertisers’ focus on data has created significant value, both for the company and publishers, is in the success metrics. According to Andresen, there’s a clear definition of what success looks like.
Since clients know how they want a campaign to perform, it’s on the publishers to provide context around the metrics. The numbers—like impressions, click through rates or social shares—are there, but publishers today also offer value by describing what these end results mean. They have benchmarks, which is something USA Today Network updates quarterly, providing some context where certain performance metrics stand. These findings can lead to new recommendations, thoughts on how to make improvements to the performance of top content, and even uncover new objectives to pursue in the future.
In the case of the Walgreens project, Andresen’s team dug into what women readers prefer in their beauty-focused reads, using tracking technology that can hone in on which specific words an audience reads most. Andresen’s team realized readers really liked celebrity beauty content, particularly on how someone at home can get the same look. From there, GET Creative developed a series of informational slideshows and videos about how to use products found within Walgreens to achieve the look.
“What we bring to the table,” says Andresen, is providing detail on “who that specific audience is on our platform.” From there, the results follow.
You can hear Bryan Kinkade and Adam Ochman speak more on this topic in the “Creating & Selling Unique Custom Products” and the “Power Up Your Digital Revenue With Native Advertising” sessions, respectively, at The Folio: Show this October.