Meet the association publisher that transformed into a full service content agency

No longer selling "rates, dates and space", one association publisher banks on selling ideas

In 1923, the first advertisement in the first issue of American Chemical Society’s C&EN magazine asked, “Would you buy a microscope, polariscope, or spectroscope without the makers name or trade-mark thereon?”

In 1995, around the time the Internet went mainstream, an advertisement for Altus Biologics simply declared, “Our catalysts are as selective as you.”

In 2018, things are very different. Kimble Glass is now Kimble Chase and Altus Biologics has shuttered, the internet has made print advertising (and magazines for that matter) nearly obsolete, and product pitches have been replaced with customer insights.

And C&EN — a magazine and digital publication for the 144-year old society’s global audience of thousands of chemists—is turning into a full-service content agency. A decision a few years back to embrace the tectonic changes in the advertising landscape is quickly paying off: At a time when most publishers are facing declines in advertising, C&EN’s revenue is steadily growing.

C&EN’s problem is familiar, but its response was unique. Facing declining revenue and anemic interest from major brand names, C&EN decided to change course, investing in a creative agency run by its business division. That was two years ago. This year, content creation will be 25% of all revenue.

Here are the four key lessons learned during C&EN’s transformation into a full-service content agency:

#1: ADOPT A NEW MINDSET

The media landscape has changed and so must your team.

Many things keep publishers up at night, but one of the biggest is sales transformation. Adjusting a team’s mindset from selling clients products to solving their problems requires a deep knowledge of digital marketing, the confidence to discuss analytics and the ability to think creatively.

Adopting this mindset was one of the biggest challenges for the C&EN sales team — a strategic hurdle that holds back many publishers from introducing services to marketers.

As she tried to broaden C&EN’s ad portfolio, Stephanie Holland, Director of Advertising Sales & Marketing, saw the challenge immediately.

“Selling ideas is just different from selling space, and our sales team really struggled to conceptualize or even plant seeds to our particular customer base about what we can do,” Holland said.

To build the team’s confidence, Holland started by dedicating significant time for sales calls and encouraged her marketing team to act as “reinforcements” to the sales team.

She then introduced ongoing in-person training for her team: How to get answers on strategy, moving outside of the typical micro-conversations that can happen around “rates, dates and space.” When to recommend a webinar vs. a native article. Why a client should trust her team with content creation instead of the competition.

Then, she started tackling bigger issues: How to get a client to invest more annually, rather than move money around. Holland set up a account-based marketing approach to the major players in the market, creating internal swat teams that produced customized insights and “big idea” pitches for client teams. Her team invested in educational materials and a flagship event that served to advise clients with marketing best practices.

“We wanted something beyond just asking people to buy something all the time.” added Holland. “We wanted to create a community of advertisers where we provide them with something of value.”

At C&EN, creating content for advertisers became a core part of its identity. They send out a regular newsletter to clients with marketing best practices and insights to help them with their own marketing endeavors. A newsletter might include articles on SEO strategies or social media best practices.

These actions don’t immediately pay-off, rather, they help build trust with clients so that you can start broach advertising opportunities with them down the road.

“Our goal was to be on people’s shortlist for advertising,” Holland said. “So we made decision internally to provide content as value to our advertisers.”

BrandLab has worked with major clients to develop content and audience strategies, transforming the client-publisher relationship. “If you publish really, really good content, our readers don’t care where it comes from,” Stephanie Holland, Director of Advertising, said.

 

#2: MAKE IT OFFICIAL

Set apart new from the old.

Giving C&EN BrandLab an official home and name signaled loud and clear to staff, clients, and competitors that C&EN was committed to serving their advertising clients through a modern model.

With BrandLab, C&EN joined the ranks of the New York Times, the Atlantic, and The Wall Street Journal in developing and launching a suite of customer services. BrandLab was the first in its market to create a custom publishing studio. Though many publishers have their hands in custom content, very few have a dedicated agency.

“[Holland] was keenly aware that advertisers in the scientific arena, just like advertisers elsewhere, were interested in exploring content marketing and using it to attract new customers and retain them,” said Rajendrani Mukhopadhyay, Ph.D., BrandLab Executive Editor.

After watching other publishers wade into native advertising, she saw a potential solution to one of C&EN’s most vexing problems: Top chemical companies like Dow and DuPont jockeyed for editorial coverage but were completely cold when it came to advertising.

“I thought the native storytelling was a way to bring those types of clients into the fold because maybe they aren’t trying to sell products, they’re [focused on] telling their their brand story and that higher value chemistry,” Holland said.

With the help of Revmade,  Holland developed a business plan packed full of metrics and insights and pitched it to leadership. To her surprise, they quickly signed off.

An interactive feature by BrandLab on behalf of Chemours, exploring the chemistry of concerts. C&EN’s BrandLab has successfully introduced new content services to market, growing overall spend of key accounts and boosting year-over-year renewals.

 

#3: ESTABLISH THE IDEAS MACHINE

Enlist the talent and establish the operations infrastructure to be able to deliver on creative ideas for clients.

Once established, BrandLab needed to shed its traditional advertising identity in favor of an agency point of view. That meant hiring the talent and establishing the infrastructure so that it could start churning out ideas and content.

Given its audience of scientists — who are inherently skeptical and generally more knowledgeable than advertisers — safeguarding scientific accuracy and authority would be critical for BrandLab to succeed.

A former journalist, Mukhopadhyay was hired to ensure the quality and integrity of BrandLab’s content. In her role as executive editor, she works externally with clients to develop content strategies and internally with the BrandLab team to promote the content to the right audiences of scientists. Of highest priority for Mukhopadhyay is ensuring the scientific information within each native piece is factually correct.

“Our readers are experts in chemistry and can spot technical and scientific errors very quickly,” explained Mukhopadhyay. “As on the editorial side, we hold scientific accuracy as sacrosanct. If we make mistakes, we lose credibility.”

Referencing the Atlantic’s 2012 native advertising snafu with the Church of Scientology, Holland emphasized the importance of establishing editorial standards and procedures to ensure their custom content meets the Federal Trade Commission’s standards.

“Freelance writers are held to the same standards as editorial and work solely for the BrandLab side to prevent conflicts of interest,” added Mukhopadhyay, “and we’re crystal clear that the editorial has been paid for by an advertiser.”

Good project management is an equally important part of the equation. Not long after the creation of BrandLab, Holland brought on a product strategist,  to help manage client relations and the development process. Eventually, a full-time creative director was also brought on to create visually compelling content and a seamless aesthetic experience across all platforms. BrandLab was able to expand its offerings as a result.

In its first major deal, C&EN BrandLab worked with global chemical company Chemours on a six-figure, nine-part, multi-platform series exploring the “Future of Chemistry.” It was recently nominated for a Digiday Publishing Award. Post-campaign study showed a double-digit swing in the number of readers who said they would consider buying products from the company.

“If you publish really, really good content, our readers don’t care where it comes from,” Holland said.

“The science itself may be nothing new, but we find a new application that this science is being used for which becomes the story we tell,” said Mukhopadhyay. “There are so many stories to tell about science and the work that researchers do to understand the fundamental principles on which our world operates, solve global challenges, and find ways to improve lives of people.”

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