Julia CampbellThe Branded Content Project  

Innovative local media companies are exploring ways to virtually connect with the business community. In this series, we’ll share examples from three media organizations that are not just connecting in creative ways, but succeeding in bringing together their business communities with a little ingenuity and a little internet.

Last week we showcased examples from the team at Masthead Maine and demonstrated how their team has expanded opportunities for bigger audiences, increased sponsorship, and additional speakers. This week we share what The Seattle Times has gained from its virtual Lunch and Learn events and branded content initiatives hyper tuned to the audiences’ needs.

This week, we’re focused on The Seattle Times.

Located in one of the first areas impacted by COVID-19, The Seattle Times began transitioning their monthly Lunch and Learn series in March to a virtual learning, sharing and educational experience for local businesses seeking guidance on marketing, especially during times of crisis.

Amber Aldrich, senior director of advertising for The Seattle Times, explains why the switch to virtual has been successful.

“Seattle was probably the first market to be hit with COVID. I think we were scrambling initially on how to respond,” she said. “We were all working from home from early March and knew that our businesses were in a similar boat in terms of trying to figure out how to manage through this crisis. We have been really focusing on being a resource to them and positioning ourselves as a thought leader with local businesses.”

The team in Seattle quickly realized they could take their traditional in-person advertiser Lunch and Learns and switch to a virtual version.

“We were still working on positioning our business to business brand as the media outlet of The Seattle Times, but we also have a full agency team. We would talk on topics like social or video or branded content. We had that format and we had events planned. We had to cancel them because we were no longer doing events, so we said, ‘Let us focus on COVID. Let us switch these to a virtual format,'” Aldrich said.

The events started in March with an event focused on Marketing Through Crisis. They followed up with Planning for Recovery in April. The third in the series is Local Consumer Sentiment and Business Response.

Aldrich explains that the virtual format has a lot of benefits.

“We live in a market where it is very hard to get to downtown Seattle for a Lunch and Learn, and so we have been pleasantly surprised at the response once we have moved our events to this webinar format,” she said. “I don’t think we will go back to doing them in the office because normally we were getting 10 to 20 people. The first one of this series, we had 40 people RSVP. The second one we had 60, and we are really hoping on this third one, we are hoping for 100 if we can get there.”

The team is also improving its ability to market the events.

“We have gotten fantastic feedback from businesses just in terms of the content itself. We are again trying to be a thought leader but we are pulling from all resources, like Borrell, and some of the vendors that we work with such as Centro. We pulled some information from Resonate, the data management platform,” she said. “We are pulling from all the folks that support us and then bringing the best of those best practices to these local businesses in these Lunch and Learns. We were also recording and putting it on our site so that if people missed the initial or the live event, there is an email gate where they have to put in their email to download the webinar. We are seeing this as a lead gen tactic as well and thinking that this content can live beyond just that event and allow us to get more businesses into the fold.”

The implementation of the events is becoming more streamlined, Aldrich details.

“We are hosting them via Zoom which we think just works really well for big groups. We are learning better about how to market,” she said. “We have a monthly newsletter that we’ve always featured our monthly Lunch and Learn in. We do ask our account executives to reach out and get people — either current clients or prospects — to attend. But what we found is working better is just email marketing outside of either of the platforms. We send an email to our entire database. The reps can get their set of clients and prospects that they are normally working, but we have been really impressed and surprised by some of the businesses that have come to us through email marketing efforts.”

Virtual events are driving new business. Aldrich explains.

“Roughly half the people who have come to these have not been our normal clients. They have found us through either our website, some of the email marketing that we are doing, or social media,” she said. “It has been a really good way of bringing new businesses into the fold.”

The concept for the re-opening event was driven by reader surveys.

“What we did for the re-opening session is conducted surveys with our readers and we asked them questions about their sentiment as businesses re-open,” Aldrich said. “Our main question was, ‘When businesses re-open, are people still going to go back and shop? Around the world, as behaviors change, how will things be different?’ The highlight is that people here are still very concerned for their health and safety. But the good news is that they are also more likely to support local businesses now than pre-COVID because they realize how important it is to help these businesses stay open and we need to support them.

“We then focused on featuring several of our clients that talk about how they have managed the crisis and dealt with messaging. An example was a high-end restaurant that shifted from high-end dining to burger and bagel meals to go. So all of this, for us, is taking COVID and thinking that this is really an opportunity for us to provide valuable content to our businesses.”

Aldrich also explains that the focus needs to be on message, especially around branded content, and showed us two recent examples.

“This is Mattel Play Room, and because families are at home with their children and trying to figure out what to do, they started a new website that is all about things to do with your kids that features the characters from their toy line,” she said. “And we have City University that is talking about how teleworking is impacting the cybersecurity landscape. We have some businesses that are focusing on using branded content for cause marketing and elevating their brand and showing how they are giving back to the community.”

Aldrich shared another great example of a branded content campaign.

“We’ve had a good one come across this week, that was actually from the Port of Seattle who manages the airport among other gateways,” she said. “They were looking for content around instructing people to wear masks at the airport. Branded content is such a great opportunity for businesses to help people navigate their lives because everyone’s lives have been completely turned upside down. The Lunch and Learns have been a great format for us to help businesses. Then as we’ve worked with our clients on how to use branded content, showing these examples kind of helps them see how they can think about marketing differently than perhaps a display ad. It is a different kind of marketing right now and bringing the content is really a perfect fit for so many brands.”

Kelly Hulin, advertising sales director for Seattle Times, explains more about the Lunch and Learn event.

“The best thing about the Lunch and Learn series overall in branded content, is that during this period of time, sales are somewhat slow, but this has enabled our salespeople to really engage our clients in deeper discussions than they were having before,” she said. “They use these tools as an opportunity to really go deep with their clients and not talking just about an upcoming ad schedule, but talking about messaging and creative ideas that can cut through and that will really resonate with our customers right now.”

Looking for more virtual event strategies? Stay tuned for our next feature on Newsday!