Amid the turmoil and transition caused by COVID-19, many local media teams faced challenges that also created opportunities. The team at AL DÍA News Media, discovered unique ways to serve its business community and audiences by focusing on content options and highlighting the businesses and leaders in the Philadelphia area through new initiatives.

The Branded Content Project interviewed Martin Alfaro, business development manager for AL DÍA News Media, who explains how they have discovered new revenue and built innovative initiatives around branded content. AL DÍA News Media is a member of our Pilot group for The Branded Content Project and has been working closely with Peter Lamb, sales strategist and president of Lamb Consulting.

The video interview:

Rather read than watch? Here are highlights from the interview:

Given everything else that you could have been investing your time in during COVID, why did you and AL DÍA decide to invest your time and your energy into branded content? What was the motivation behind branded content or the fascination with branded content?

I think the fascination is that we almost forgot that we’re a news organization. And so when we started discussing this idea of branded content, we said, you know, we are journalists, you know, so how can we use that to our advantage, especially in a time where the marketing and advertising budgets are shrinking. We figured it’s a good time to talk to our clients or corporate partners and show them that we can go beyond a display ad or doing advertisements on the web. We can develop a story and we can help them connect with their audiences. And this is what we do. This is what we have done for 25 years. So now let’s use it to our advantage and help these clients tell the story of what they’re trying to accomplish.

When you talk about Open in Philly, where was the upside? Was the motivation revenue? Was it increasing your audience? What was the thought process behind Open in Philly?

We came up with Open in Philly in a time where corporations were searching for answers and we thought how can we benefit, of course, financially in a time where, as I said, we’re working with very limited budgets, but also how can we help the small businesses that are struggling in our area with this whole COVID situation? And so we came up with this initiative that we were able to use all of the elements that make up all the advertisements in our digital and our print editions and communicate messages to our audience. We could develop a listing of restaurants and small businesses that were open during this whole crisis. The idea was to create an intro kind of covering everything that’s happening at the moment and then following it through as we look to the future, moving from our current situation to the future of the city. So that’s how we came up with this plan.

Now, if my memory serves me correctly, didn’t we say there were 74,000 hospitality workers in Philadelphia?

So there’s a tremendous amount of people being affected by this. So, yes, 74,000 people rely just on small businesses in Philly.

We always talk about church and state and you mentioned earlier about the advertising folks and editorial folks. How do we find a happy medium to get them to work together?

I think that editorial was as worried as us in business in figuring out how can we move forward during this whole situation. We can’t function without editorial. And likewise. So, you know, it’s a little bit of a compromise. I can do their job and I think people can try to do ours. But it’s a different mentality. And I think this is just a great combination of us coming together. And journalists enjoy telling stories and we want to help our clients tell the story. The best way that we can do this is by working together.

One of the bigger questions we always get asked on branded content is sponsorship. How did you think through who to go after, who to identify, how to approach them, the whole monetization portion?

People were looking for corporate partners who were looking for solutions and we came up with this idea, we presented it to them and it was just good timing. We figured, why don’t we kind of use all of our tools, put them all together, and offer them as a package deal instead of buying things individually. It also helps the corporation look at different budgets. An editorial project like this doesn’t necessarily have to come from the traditional marketing budget. It can come from PR, it can come from different pockets of the company.

40 Under 40 is a little bit different. Tell the group how you sort through that, what it is, and if there are a lot of lessons to be learned there as well.

We actually started this project at the end of last year, but we started to work on the logistics earlier this year and then COVID. This was supposed to be a live event. We had a presenting sponsor already booked, and we were expecting a very high volume of attendees. But because of COVID, we had to continue forward with this great initiative to recognize the rich diversity in the workforce of Philadelphia. We’re a city where it’s about 70 percent diverse. So we want it to reflect that workforce diversity with this event and recognize individuals who are making a difference in the bottom lines of these corporations. And we wanted to celebrate them, showcase them. I feel like the pandemic kind of helped us because it gave us more time to work on this and to create a more comprehensive campaign.

When you look at the two initiatives you talked about, 40 Under 40 and Open in Philly, any lessons you learned, advice you can give the group in terms of what to do, what not to do, what pitfalls they should watch out for anything that you can give advice on?

Yeah, I think there’s no manual to navigate this current situation. And I think the best thing we can do is kind of go for it. You kind of learn as you go, but you can’t just sit there with your arms crossed. You have to think of something. You use all the tools that you have, different departments, get different insights. And we’re all learning there’s no right or wrong answer right now. And I think the most important thing is to as soon as you have an idea, just kind of go for it, talk to other people. You know, we’re all kind of looking for answers everywhere. So I think you just need determination, put a plan together, and then go for it.

How is this changing your thought process going forward? How have you changed your thinking in terms of 2021/2022?

Well, I think that we have learned so much through this pandemic and it has really forced us to think beyond our comfort zones. And I think there’s a lot of great things coming out of this, even though it’s a sad situation. But these are the things that we’re learning right now, the products that we’re developing. I don’t think that we would have done that if this if we weren’t in this situation. So I think the biggest thing that we’ve learned is it’s OK to think outside the box, re-evaluate the products that you already have and put them together, figure out ways that you can present more resources to our clients and our audience.