USA Today’s Branded Content Studio Is Thriving Thanks to a Focus on Data

It creates a mix of ad innovations and custom initiatives

The branded content consists of articles, videos and strategically placed banner ads. Getty Images
Headshot of Sami Main

Each month, USA Today reaches more than 125 million people across print, online, mobile and tablet consumers of media. That number includes the aforementioned newspaper and the more than 100 local newsrooms (and 3,000 journalists) that make up the USA Today Network, which continues to expand into markets across the country. Because of this rapid growth, GET Creative, the publisher’s branded content studio, has also expanded.

As of Q4 of 2017, the team creates content for local, regional and national advertisers, at scale, in every market.

“Our developers look at data to tell us which stories will perform best depending on the industry, vertical and market,” said Kelly Andresen, lead of GET Creative. “We’ve been building the infrastructure for this for years and can use these tools to produce content for markets across the country.”

Her division can create content, ad innovations and custom initiatives depending on the advertiser at scale, and within reason of the client’s budget; you won’t see 360-degree ads for a local dentist, but you might see some for a larger organization like Pure Michigan.

This development is leading Andresen to see a 40 percent year-over-year increase in revenue from 2016 to 2017 for all national sales. With a mix of articles, videos and strategically placed banner ads, GET Creative aims for impactful ads and smart growth.

This includes technology and data collection even down to the emotional categories of news stories in order to better target ads; a global healthcare nonprofit used this targeting around stories that were “inspirational” to drive engagement and donations for their overall efforts and to utilize sentiments like hope, positivity, compassion, love, courage and empathy. To date, that campaign raised all donations to that specific cause by 29 percent.

2017 was a big year of building and investment for GET Creative, including building out a team in several different cities across the U.S. which we have several former journalists on staff,” said USA Today Network’s CRO, Kevin Gentzel.

This type of branded content service, at scale, can only be done with as wide a publisher as USA Today and Gannett. Andersen helped build the infrastructure the company uses today for these projects when she first joined in 2015. She found that their local and regional clients were already interested in purchasing branded content, but the company as a whole didn’t have a system in place for producing them just yet.

“Branded content can be a game changer for local businesses,” said Andresen.

With 2018 ramping up to give publishers new and evolving challenges, branded content and staying ahead of trends is going to be the name of the game.

Publishers can stay ahead of algorithms and create growth alongside platforms by focusing on what they do best: using branded content and native ads to place brands alongside trusted content,” said Gentzel.

Developing first-party data that is unique and differentiated and focusing on the environment they are creating for readers will be key,” he said, “as well as doubling down on the ‘why’ readers turn to local and national news and information sites in the first place.”

@samimain Sami Main is social editor for Adweek, where she posts Adweek content onto social platforms and looks for creative ways to communicate what's new.