By Mike Winkleman
It comes as no news to readers of Sidebar that associations have been hit hard during the pandemic, especially from a revenue perspective. Between canceled conferences, lost exhibit sales, worried advertisers and furloughed members, associations have been forced to deal not only with the impact of the pandemic on how they are working today, but also with the question of how they will work tomorrow.
If there’s a silver lining, it was evident during a virtual Lunch & Learn that AM&P held on April 1 in which three leaders of association publishing groups talked about the special coverage they had developed to provide members with critical COVID-19 content. The pages on which this coverage was housed, the panelists reported, were experiencing traffic unlike anything previous. But that raised the question of how—and if—they might take advantage of these increased numbers. Was there a way, for example, to sell space on these pages to advertisers in an appropriate, sensitive manner that wouldn’t give the appearance of profiteering?
One potential approach, suggested Jim Elliott of James G. Elliott Company, would be native advertising, which, by definition, is rooted in content, not claims, and therefore could provide a softer, more helpful and even informative approach at the same time it provided much-needed revenue.
As someone whose company produces native advertising, I was certainly taken by Elliott’s suggestion. But I was also wondering whether generally prudent associations would be following his advice, or whether, in an abundance of caution, they would let the opportunity slip by. What I found, during a check-in with a number of association editors and publishers as well as people who work with associations to develop revenue opportunities, is that, while caution is a watchword, innovative thinking is prevalent.
For example, Marlene Hendrickson, senior director of publishing & marketing at the American Staffing Association and a webinar panelist, said that native advertising—or sponsored content—is an approach ASA’s advertisers had been using well before the pandemic struck. However, she sees the popularity of ASA’s COVID-19 pages as an opportunity not to raise revenue, but to strengthen the association’s relationships with its existing advertisers. Toward that end, ASA has put together a program that, at no charge, catalogs and promotes, on the ASA COVID-19 page, the various deals and COVID-related resources its sponsors and advertisers are offering to staffing companies now. As the email ASA sent to solicit responses put it, “ASA is here for you. Let’s help staffing companies weather this crisis.” Though ASA will not benefit directly from this program, it’s likely, Hendrickson noted, that sponsors and advertisers that were touched by the association’s offer will look at ASA more seriously when it comes to spending money in the future.
Now's When the Trust Can Pay Off
Nurturing this type of relationship over time is critical, says Carrie Hartin, president of MCI USA Sales. And that’s especially true if you’re trying to sell an advertiser on doing something they may not be accustomed to, such as native advertising, which Elliott is quick to point out takes time to ramp up. “If you don’t have the trust established,” says Hartin, “if you didn’t do the work over the past year or so, the job is exponentially harder right now.” Higher traffic alone won’t make the sale. It’s hard to win the dollars,” given the economic situation both associations and advertisers face.
At Worldwide ERC, Kristin White, senior content manager and another webinar participant, said that while there is clearly a demand for COVID-related information—which they are seeing in record numbers of registrants for weekly “Town Hall” webinars dedicated to the topic—they’ve not yet built advertising opportunities into their dedicated web pages or other digital resources. However, their monthly magazine, Mobility, while traditionally available in both print and digital formats, will be produced online only in May, June and July. The editorial coverage in the May issue has been completely rethought, moving from more evergreen topics to articles that will help members maintain business continuity and plan for the post-pandemic future. Mobility’s April issue, which came out just as the pandemic was ramping up, featured articles on duty care, audits, and compliance challenges. Most of the ads in that issue, White noted, did not contain references to COVID-19, with one exception. One advertiser opted to craft a more of-the-moment message. “The recent health crisis,” the black ad with white dropout type read, “has reminded us to take a moment to say to our employees, clients and partners; to the healthcare workers, first responders, and everyone on the front line—across the globe—thank you.” White’s expectation is that more advertisers are likely to begin to tailor their ads to reflect the changes in content coverage and use the opportunity to express messages of global connectivity, solidarity, and support.
Stephanie Holland, director of advertising sales & marketing at the American Chemical Society, has long been platform agnostic when it comes to advertising, looking to place advertising messages where they’re most appropriate, regardless of the specific vehicle. Seeing an uptick of as much as 300% in traffic on ACS’s COVID-19 pages, the association has repositioned some of its existing advertising inventory accordingly, creating a specific COVID-19 channel and placing ads adjacent to relevant editorial there. While this has not increased revenue for the association, it has provided an additional service to the advertisers, giving them exposure to a larger, particularly engaged audience.
Where Holland has seen real revenue growth, however, is with webinars. In the past two months, ACS has seen a dramatic increase in registrations and, even more significantly, in attendance rates. She sees this as a direct result of canceled events. “Advertisers are asking, ‘What do I do with the money I’m not spending on events?’” she said.
Looking to Webinars for Lead Gen
Mike Walker, president of The R.W.Walker Company, an ad sales rep firm, has seen the same trend. “Everyone is trying to brand themselves and build their leads now, not later,” he said. Both associations and advertisers are looking to “fill the opportunities lost because of cancelled conferences.” Although he’s found some associations that believe “it’s too soon to reach out, people are reaching out to me. The request by vendors to sponsor webinars is way up.”
Hartin, echoing Holland’s platform-agnostic approach, sees sponsored webinars as another form of native advertising. And as with native advertising, she stresses the importance of ensuring that webinars provide opportunities for lead generation. One of the reasons webinars have emerged as a substitute for canceled conferences, she noted, is that they offer the opportunity for the type of lead generation that’s inherent in the conference environment. Of course, mining webinars takes more overt action than handing out business cards at a booth in the exhibit hall. Having something prepared, like a white paper, Hartin suggests, can help reinforce the connection.
Critical though, noted Holland, is that, as with native advertising, sponsored white papers, or even sponsored Twitter chats, a sponsored webinar needs to tell a story, not, as Holland puts it, “provide an endorsement” for the company. “Content is still king,” she said. And, especially in this climate, that reigning content needs to be informative and useful, at the same time it’s establishing thought leadership and generating leads.
Holland and others wonder what the world of association publishing and events will look like in a post-pandemic world. But neither she nor most of her colleagues are sitting still while they wait for that world to emerge. Instead they’re looking not only for silver linings in this crisis but also for innovative solutions that balance purpose and profit, sensitivity and the need to create new revenue streams. As Walker put it, “this is not a time to take your foot off the gas.”
Mike Winkleman, a former board member of AM&P, is president and chief creative officer of Leverage Media LLC, a content marketing firm. Reach him at email@example.com