USA TODAY’s Top 5 Tips for Media Sellers

By Linda Freund · March 24, 2020

How do digital media publishers guarantee advertisers and brands video views?

“It’s impossible,” said Ilana Levin, Executive Director for Sales Strategy and Development at USA TODAY, in a recent Tubular webinar. Therein lies the struggle for so many media sellers today.

“Advertisers want metrics that we can’t necessarily deliver and guaranteed views that we cannot necessarily promise.”

To overcome this, publishers must build confidence amongst potential advertisers. Gannett & Co.’s USA TODAY video property is approaching this with gusto.

The media arm is leading video growth across the premium ad business, thanks to a bold brand identity and a sophisticated video narrative they deliver to media buyers.

It’s about identifying “what is valuable to our readers and intersecting that with what brands and advertisers find valuable and creating this really great marriage,” added Russ Torres, VP of Digital Video Content and Strategy at USA TODAY.

To achieve this, USA TODAY routinely harnesses Tubular data to meet the needs of their bread-and-butter audiences and, importantly, to differentiate themselves to advertisers.

Tubular hosted a webinar with Levin and Torres to unpack USA TODAY’s successful digital video strategy. We’ve consolidated these into five actionable tips on how to boost your media selling:

  • Identify your wow factor 
  • Ask yourself tough questions
  • Solidify your KPI strategy
  • Uncover white space you can enter with brand partners 
  • Adapt quickly to evolving audience preferences

Read on as we unpack them.

1. Identify Your Wow Factor

Digital publishing today is overwhelming. There is an oversaturation of content to compete with. And there are endless ways viewers can consume videos, from platform (YouTube, Instagram, Facebook), to mobile versus desktop, to CTV (Roku, Fire, Apple TV) and OTT (Netflix, Amazon, iTunes).

One month’s worth of social video data alone is truly an ocean: 2 trillion views. 40 billion engagements. Almost 100 million videos uploaded.

To stand out, media publishers must differentiate themselves to potential advertisers by producing engaging content verticals that draw consistent audiences.

“Identifying those strengths and those differentiating factors is paramount in order to survive and thrive today,” Levin said. It starts by “capitalizing on our franchise that performs well.”

One such franchise is USA TODAY’s successful Humankind brands. Launched in 2015, it includes “Humankind,” “Militarykind,” and “Animalkind.” And in 2019, “we launched ‘KidKind’ thanks to Tubular’s insights about a good area to expand into,” Levin said.

These verticals tell stories about extraordinary ordinaries, people and animals engaging in acts of compassion and social uplift. These are stories that throttle your heart, from soldiers reuniting with their young children to kangaroo rescues during the recent Australia wildfire.

The Humankind franchise garners about 5B cross-platform views in a year, and a consistent 35-40M views on Facebook in a single month, according to Tubular data.

USA TODAY also has live news video offerings and video franchises based after the newspaper’s iconic sections (from the green-collared money section to the purple-tinted life section).

When it comes to populating these feeds with quality content, USA TODAY’s parent company Gannett & Co., which recently merged with Gatehouse Media, has more than 260 U.S. news operations, ranging from small players like the Columbus Dispatch in Ohio, to the Detroit Free Press and the aforementioned USA Today. All of them are “thinking as one newsroom,” explained Levin.

Finally, the media entity has a studio structure called Bluepoint Originals, which is “premium, high-quality, serial, custom-content around passion points,” explained Levin. This is also the focal point for the company’s branded creative content team, which offers a direct in-house revenue portal.

2. Ask Tough Questions

To best drive revenue, Torres routinely grapples with big questions when green-lighting video campaigns.

  • Is a video commercial enough for a particular sponsor or brand?
  • What does that look like in a consistent, scalable, and repeatable way?
  • What is the ideal frequency of a video campaign?
  • What platform do you focus on?
  • Do you publish certain loss leaders even though the platform doesn’t offer relative compensation, but may offer marketing and reach?

“There are just these strands of unknowns and it certainly does take a little bit of crystal ball reading,” said Torres.

But asking these questions to then set individual KPIs for your different properties can help you gauge success.

3. Solidify Your Strategy and Benchmarks

Before approaching media buyers, it’s important to clarify your sales strategy and individual KPIs. “Are you revenue-based, are you content consumption-based?” Levin said. In the case of USA TODAY, “we want people to consume our content and we want to make money from it.”

The USA TODAY team consists of thousands of media sellers. The majority of those are on the local team representing more than 100 local properties. They also have a 20-person national sales team that focuses on monetizing national campaigns.

USA TODAY’s goal is to keep viewers on the page. When it comes to internal video metrics, the sales and content teams look to video completion rates as a key metric of success.

The team watches “to see if the user gets past the first video into what we’re calling continuous play,” Levin said. Entering continuous play means more ad starts and thereby greater monetization.

Externally, Levin said she gets a lot of questions from media buyers about “which video lengths get more views. I’ll just rationalize that these metrics are not truly indicative of our performance and our success.”

“Video views are vanity,” added Torres. The real focus is time spent. “We use not only the duration (audiences) watched but where they dropped off. That just helps you tighten up the creative and make the content more meaningful to users.”

For those who don’t have fresh metrics when promoting a new venture, another tact is to focus on brand affinity. “When I don’t have the numbers, I just talk about the value of the USA Today Brand. We’re a household name. We reach one in two Americans. That stands for something,” Levin said.

4. Uncover White Space

Explore High-Performing Video Categories

Almost 100 million videos are uploaded to social video platforms each month. These videos range from user-generated content (think: a dog chasing a cat up a tree) to publishers who are creating dynamic lifestyle content at scale.

With such scope and variety, how do digital media publishers keep tabs on new trends and expansion opportunities?

“One of the tools we use is Tubular to really help us identify white space. Particularly in social, where there are so many publishers,” Torres said.

“Tubular helps us to understand who the leaders are in particular categories and that is the way we get at the type of videos that we think our readers will want to watch and consume.”

Consider travel. After seeing great traction in its text-based travel content, USA TODAY is developing a video franchise. They came to this path by “leveraging the data” to see what they were strong at and “comparing that to what’s not being represented well in our channel,” Levin said.

“We went to Tubular and said now that we’ve identified travel as our white space, what specifically about travel? Is it food, is it travel hacks and tips, is it fashion in other countries, is it sports in other countries? What element of travel is going to work best?” Levin said.

Taking on Levin’s process, let’s drill down on Tubular’s Travel & Destinations category. It’s clearly hot. In 2019 the genre earned 15.8B views and 225M engagements on YouTube for 89K videos, and 20.9B views and 559M engagements on Facebook for 99.8K videos.

Among these, experiential travel videos are clearly winning out. We’re talking bucket-list, daredevil travel content. Extra points if they incorporate aerial beauty shots!

The top five most-viewed travel videos in 2019 include going up a narrow set of stairs in Sri Lanka (in freaking flip flops), turning yourself into a human slingshot in New Zealand (ouch), and losing your lunch on the mindblowing 2019 Coachella Ferris Wheel.

Approach Advertisers With Early, Actionable Insights

For USA TODAY, uncovering white space helps better cement their relationship with advertisers.

For example, the media brand’s internal reporting discovered a boost in home renovation interest and spending.

The video sellers took this info and stratevideogized how to communicate this to advertisers so that they “get ahead of what they-don’t-know-they-don’t-know,” said Torres. “That there is this expenditure coming and actually we can get you in front of people who have a curiosity about buying their first home.”

They then follow-up with a strong case for video. “Video is really helpful for that because it is a demonstrative medium. It shows you the hit of the hammer on the nail. It debriefs with construction and carpentry experts,” said Torres.

Methods like this allow USA TODAY to take advantage of a rising trend as well as give advertisers an early buy-in.

5. Adapt Quickly to Evolving Audience Preferences

Audiences are fickle. It’s important to adapt to changing preferences swiftly. Torres has a mantra to this end: Fail fast. Iterate. If something isn’t working, stop.

“You iterate, you study the insights, you make changes based on insights provided and if it’s still a clunker, it’s time to move on.”

Advertisers build trust in your brand if they know you are fearlessly adapting to better meet your audiences’ needs. Torres cites Brighthouse Financial’s recent sponsorship of their World Series Coverage.

“We’re two pieces in and our programming team, which operates with real-time analysis, noticed we weren’t given the expected completion rate.” His team used on-the-ground insights and adjusted their content right away to hook audiences longer.

Ensuring high content performance, and a willingness to switch things up midstream, is a big part of long-term client relationships.

“It’s helpful that Brighthouse wrote a check to help us sponsor that content, but if people are not watching it, shame on us,” Torres said. “We want to make sure Brighthouse will come back because they know when they come to us, we convert people.”

Activating USA TODAY’s Video Playbook

USA TODAY’s approach to media selling is seeing repeatable success. Media sellers, if you’re struggling to make headway with buyers, you should keep USA TODAY’s data-informed approach in mind.

USA TODAY’s final takeaway: The data is clear. “If your story can offer elements of inspiration, you got it,” Torres said. This method resonates with both viewers and advertisers (who have aspirational messaging in their DNA).

Acting on this advice is simple:

  • Use video to tell people something they don’t know.
  • Offer elements of inspiration, followed by practical tips on how to become better.

Want to learn even more ways to match USA TODAY’s success through data?

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