Here Are The Ways Brands And Publishers Are Coming Out Ahead During COVID

The pandemic shut down live events everywhere, including our own. But, like many others, we pivoted to virtual events and, wow, have they been a mother lode of information on how to embrace the hardship, find out what consumers need, and move forward with new business models and media plans that may well continue when we emerge. We've gathered some highlights from our June and July summits here.

Publishers found a renewed focus on relationships within the industry. Condé Nast's Teen Vogue created virtual celebrations of proms and commencements, which led to the publisher looking to use its editorial voices and platforms to bring people together for such moments, Craig Kostelic, chief business officer, U.S. advertising revenue and head of global advertising solutions, told our Publishers Insider Summit. Condé Nast focused on unscripted, premium content. "We were spending time talking about how our creative handles production and how we can help [advertisers] evolve their messaging to be more culturally relevant."

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Washington Post CRO Joy Robins saw a spirit of generosity rising as the newspaper reached out to help its advertisers reach their customers. "We really lived up to partner status," she said. And Forbes CRO Jessica Sibley said the pandemic is giving the industry a more personal feeling. "It gives us hope and confidence that we can continue to partner together."

After the death of George Floyd, publishers experienced a second wave of action, helping their clients in crafting messages that weren't tone deaf, guiding them to take action most relevantly. "Social has always provided a lot of brands with a voice or action in the moment," said Robins. "We were looking to mobilize their social messaging into different forms of creative. We were proactively letting them know, we have new research, here's what we're seeing from the reader standpoint."

Catherine Thacker, director of CRM at McDonald's, explained to our Email Insider Summit how the fast food giant immediately used email to highlight its safety practices and to support the efforts of locally owned and operated franchisees who were providing free food to first responders. The "holistic digital experience" included messages about openings and closures, getting delivery via a DoorDash collaboration and even McDonald's Zoom backgrounds. 

Interestingly, the brand had looked to this year to lean into a consumer-centric approach and the coronavirus fast-forwarded those plans. "We're leaning into the roles of the channels to provide a utility that the customer expects."

In early March, the PGA was mid-tournament. When COVID forced them off the greens, emails informed fans about the disruption. And then it turned to providing fans with the human interest angle. Kristie Doak, senior manager, database marketing at PGA Tour, said, "Going forward, there will be a balance between action, the leaderboard and human interest stories. We used to give them in fits and spurts and now we're looking for those stories [in order] to share them."

As golf restarted minus fans, the tour is crafting messages on how to buy merch online, take part in a "get active" challenge, raise money for COVID relief, and work out with a favorite player. "We're getting much better engagement rates," Doak said. "Our open rates are up 3.5% and our click-through rates just about doubled."

Because 7-Eleven is everywhere, it had to contend with various city, county and state regulations regarding the crisis and even more so during the reopenings. Sonia Williford-Gill, manager of CRM at 7-Eleven, told our Email Insider Summit how difficult that geographic challenge became. "It was really manual at first. The team was building out data extensions with ad hoc extensions. If midway through, we needed a new banner, we had to pull the data all over again. But the silver lining, and it was a thick one, is that it has given us the opportunity to have a conversation with our technical team about how important it is to get the data in there. "It truly pushed a way to evaluate how we were doing things before, which was more of a shotgun approach." Going forward, Williford-Gill said, personalization and contextualized communication with customers will be part of 7-Eleven's program, and it will have segments "we can go back to, to power dynamic content."

In Florida, the Jacksonville Jaguars went overnight from being an event company to a social and digital company. Joshua Margulies, director of integrated brand marketing, said, "We moved from selling tickets to providing educational material that fans would appreciate." That included a video workout using household items, a nutritionist advising on "easy eats," and actual players reading books to kids.

Also pivoting from event to content was Spartan Race, which produced a daily newsletter focused on social video and workouts. In addition, said Stephanie Fagan, director of email marketing, they developed a free virtual race package which includes a personalized email with a finisher certificate that calls out the date one ran, finish time and virtual medal to share on social. 

Men's clothing marketer Mack Weldon was heavy on sports programming. But when that went south, said Alieu Fye, Senior Director Marketing and Acquisition, the D2C brand saw consumers turning to ESPN and talk shows so that's where the money went. Watching sweatpants flying out the door, Fye told our Brand Insider Summit D2C, the company learned to approach customers differently, tapping into emotions and "how does it make you feel."

Will Flaherty, VP of Growth at Ro, said that, moving forward, "one thing we've understood is the value of having flexibility in media." When COVID-19 came along, the telehealth company was able to quickly reallocate its media spend and get ahead of large brands that may have had their spend committed well in advance.

Before March, the D2C brand had a diverse mix of search, Facebook, offline channels, TV, audio and some out of home. Live sports had been a key component of its advertising strategy for its Roman digital health clinic for men in their 40s and 50s. It even had a partnership with Major League Baseball. Then sports went dark.

Flaherty said they looked at consumer behavior and saw that TV viewership was up about 35% while CPM rates dropped so they allocated spend to news programming. For the one sport that continued to air — NASCAR — Ro sponsored a driver. "We were able to take advantage of opportunities in the dynamic created by COVID."

Pre-COVID, Fandango's target was movie entertainment fans. Then, in mid-March, one of the D2C brand's verticals went to zero. That's when all movie theaters closed. It dialed down its outreach immediately the first week and then came back with news about the theaters, providing content and editorial from Rotten Tomatoes' lists. Following that, it created a ticketing platform in four days for its in-home offerings and rejiggered its app to highlight in-home films.

"We saw amazingly high engagement and strong click-through," said Pantel. "Consumers needed it." Next up, it worked with its theater partners to create forward-looking ticketing features like social distance seating maps, and with its studio partners to offer movies that couldn't be shown in the theaters to people locked up at home "Entertainment has always been a resource for giving us a break from reality," she said.

In hindsight, she said, what COVID has done for all marketers is expedite the conversation and given consumers more opportunity to experiment. "We will continue to message, mix our brands more," she said. "COVID has given our audience a chance to be introduced again to some of the Fandango properties."

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