As every media executive knows, back-to-school season brings its own version of the Sunday scaries: the anxiety of building effective communications plans for the coming year.
Some of this is iterative: repeating the tried and true that works. Everything else is part of the much less-politicized (and more interesting) “learning agenda” — the budget used to test new tactics that could drive future enterprise growth without risking dollars earmarked to deliver short-term results. The purpose here is learning, but the challenge is to decide which of your many ideas to prioritize. I have a suggestion for that.
Let’s talk about the news.
With the first presidential debate of the 2024 election already here and issues that strike at the heart of American democracy on the ballot this fall, audiences will flock to the news to understand the issues in front of them.
It’s been more than a decade since most brands invested seriously in news, and we’ve seen the consequences in the form of layoffs, shuttered newsrooms and a weakened Fourth Estate when we need it most. Some have been gone so long, they don’t even know how to come back.
What’s your policy on advertising in quality news journalism? When’s the last time you interrogated it? Does it reflect the values of your enterprise, or are you over rotating out of an abundance of caution?
Advertisers also have a decision to make: reach these desirable audiences, or sit on the sidelines and sacrifice reach and relevance while inadvertently fueling the culture wars by starving real journalism and funding evergreen fluff, AI-generated drivel or even misinformation in the guise of “brand suitability.”
That’s why now’s the time to put news on your “learning agenda” for 2024.
The learning agenda is the critical part of the media planning process that allows brands to invest in innovation. It’s time to see if those fears that have kept you from supporting journalism are valid. It’s also time to see how much business value exists in advertising delivered in highly reliable, minimally-biased news.
Hint, your largely unfounded fears may be leaving significant growth on the table.
This year, the learning agenda is under a lot more pressure, as the Hollywood strikes have delayed scripted content production until 2024. Unscripted content, the creator economy and sports are obvious destinations for budgets. But it would be a mistake to ignore news, for its valuable audiences, relevant content and better outcomes.
Research consistently shows audiences for quality news are affluent, engaged and more likely to be in-market for big purchases like electric vehicles. And there’s almost no adjacency risk, even in hard news. While “brand safety” concerns are based on assumptions about risks of polarizing or distressing content, it doesn’t stand up to the data. Nearly a decade of research shows news content delivers a trust “halo” to brands. Most recently, Comscore found 84% of consumers said ads in news either increases brand trust or maintains it.
Aside from the massive audiences seeking credible news content, both traditional news organizations and a host of creative startups are busy reinventing how the news is presented and delivered to next-generation audiences.
While TikTok is associated most with the burgeoning creator economy, some of the fastest-growing channels on the platform are — wait for it — legacy news brands like the ABC, NBC and CBS News, The Washington Post and USA Today. Beyond TikTok, legacy news organizations and startups alike are having huge success on vertical video platforms like Instagram Reels and YouTube shorts, demonstrating both the desire among young audiences for reliable news content and the industry’s willingness to adapt and innovate. You could say news organizations are betting their futures on their own “learning agenda,” but they’re doing it without advertiser support.
At the same time, the outrage cycle that drove audiences to news has significantly died down, both as a result of return to more civil politics, but also as an unintended consequence of Facebook’s withdrawal from news.
Extreme partisanship still exists in news, of course, but increasingly it can be filtered with technology from my employer, Ad Fontes Media, which now rates more than 3,000 news sources for reliability and bias. Our stance is that bias is not bad, but it can be controlled for, allowing brands to institute their own policies and risk tolerances around news content.
Unfortunately, after more than a decade of hearing unfounded warnings about news, and experiencing a political era defined by culture wars, brands are understandably afraid of it. Media buying firms are in a bind because their clients aren’t asking for news, and if news is placed on a media plan, they will often ask that it be taken off. Further, news publishers are so far divorced from CMOs, they’re no longer part of the strategic conversation. Twenty years ago, it was not uncommon for the CMO of American Express to meet with news publishers on all manner of topics. Today, I think that would be a rare event.
All of which is why brands need to re-learn how to engage with news’ relevant and desired content, format innovation and unduplicated reach of superior audiences.
Let me propose a solution: test your way back into news by putting it on your learning agenda for the fall — a low-risk, potentially high-return bet on high-quality journalism and a well-informed electorate.
Further, brands should band together to support high-quality news, just as they did on the climate with the Global Alliance for Responsible Media, or around the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, to achieve a triple bottom line: good for business, good for your customers and good for society.
Earlier this summer I called for the advertising business to move $1 billion back to news; a consortium of brands committing to a pledge to support high-quality news, and publishers to back it up.
The relationship between advertising and the news has played a critical role in informing democracy since the founding of our republic. Digital transformation created a chasm between advertising and news. We need to close that now to create healthier brands and a healthier democracy.
Lou Paskalis is chief strategy officer at Ad Fontes Media.