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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

How NPR’s audience-first approach drives advertising success

November 30, 2023 | By Theresa Cramer – Independent Journalist @Cramerstrasse

Savvy publishers know that balancing user experience with the need to drive revenue is key to thriving in today’s media marketplace. For NPR—where donations from an engaged and loyal audience are as important to their diverse revenue streams as sponsorship dollars—building trust is paramount to continued success. That’s why the National Public Media (NPM) team (the corporate sponsorship subsidiary of NPR) strives to uphold the values that NPR exhibits and years of data says its audience has come to expect, even as it develops content and advertising campaigns for sponsors. 

Erica Osher, Vice President of Sponsorship Products and NPM Creative, says years of affinity research tells her that 72% of NPR’s audience has more positive feelings about NPR sponsors. Why? Because of a phenomenon called trust transference. NPR’s audience trusts the organization and its personalities, and that trust transfers to brands that support the news organization.

Furthermore, NPR’s research shows that its programming and journalism are “personally important” to its audience and that, all things being equal, they will buy products that are advertised on NPR over competing products. “We understand that maintaining the trust in journalism translates to our sponsors,” says Osher. With that in mind, the NPM team works “to obtain user feedback, especially when implementing new programs.” Keeping the user in mind at every turn allows NPM to create ad products that are beneficial for everyone involved. 

Facts over flash

In order to maintain that all-important user trust, NPM enforces strict standards for sponsors who want to reach NPR’s digital audience with their advertising. In many ways, the guidelines sponsors must adhere to are not all that different from the standards journalists must uphold. Sponsors can only make substantiated claims in their ads, and even “broad claims” are rejected by the NPM team. No misleading creative or messaging is allowed, and sponsors cannot use disparaging language. Certain categories of sponsors are held to an even higher standard. 

Another best practice suggestion for brands looking to reach NPR’s audience is to avoid inauthentic messaging. Osher says she often urges brands to speak for themselves, and feature speakers who can communicate genuinely, rather than just hitting a list of talking points. Avoiding jargon and technical language also helps keep the messaging relatable.

Holding sponsors to a higher standard is just the start of building better ads. Osher’s team thinks about how many ads per page—or podcast—the audience will tolerate. They use lazy loading to ensure content does not shift on a page because of an ad, and always test how any new major placements will impact a page. In essence, they strive to meet and sometimes improve on Better Ad Coalition Standards.

“We have these guidelines that we stick to and need to be balanced with the need for revenue,” says Osher. “When we do it well, the audience is receptive… but they hold us accountable.” 

Best practices in action

So, what does it look like when sponsors take NPM’s standards to heart and deliver the kind of content NPR audiences want to see? In the case of Mattress Firm, NPM Creative (with the help of Spark Foundry) crafted a campaign around the science of sleep as part of its Brand Soundscapes product offering, which includes Center Stage. Interviews with sleep experts lead to tangible advice for readers on how to calm their minds and get better sleep.

Osher says that, as with most campaigns, her team tested different images and headlines to find what resonated best. “Featuring people is always effective,” she says. The Mattress Firm campaign, which strives to educate readers and listeners about how to get good sleep and why it matters, uses doctors to lend legitimacy to the topic. Listening to one of the segments, it’s easy to forget you are listening to sponsor content rather than a story segment about health and wellness. Year-over-year, Osher says, NPM has increased the play rate on its Center Stage Soundscapes product by about 33% and the average completion rate by roughly 19%.

Mass Mutual worked with NPM Creative to create custom Spotlight Mid-rolls to run across NPR podcasts. A case study describes the campaign: “The creative featured director Brian Trzcinski, Certified Exit Planning Advisor (CEPA). He shared how MassMutual financial professionals can help business owners balance the needs of today and tomorrow, including planning for a comfortable retirement.” Mass Mutual also used NPM’s research and measurement services to measure “campaign insights, optimize for success and ultimately make an impact.” According to the case study, the custom audio yielded a conversion rate (CR) 18% higher than standard 30-second mid-roll placements. 

The success of NPM’s campaigns is due, in large part, to its commitment to producing sponsor content that feels true to NPR’s brand. With that in mind, the team has also moved away from traditional banner placements in its newsletters and switched to incorporating a native sponsorship unit. Taking a more text-based, story-driven approach has increased the click-through rate by 1,850% for the same campaign, says Osher.  

The “facts over flash” approach that NPM takes when developing and implementing campaigns for sponsors has reaped rewards for sponsors as well as its own bottom line. A laser-like focus on what its audience expects and a willingness to hold sponsors to a high set of standards has created a virtuous cycle of great content that informs readers and listeners, creates a halo effect for brands, and keeps NPR in business.

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