Irish Times initiative boosts advertising partnerships during pandemic

By Shelley Seale


Austin, Texas, USA


How does a news media brand pivot during a pandemic to bring deeper meaning and value to both its readers and subscribers? At The Irish Times, the answer was to create “Sparks of Joy.”

In a Webinar for INMA members on Wednesday, Media Solutions Director Eimear Moran shared the journey behind this collaboration that incorporated native, experiential, digital, print, and audio to forge higher engagement and better relationships with both their advertisers and readers.

The Irish Times operates three main departments: content, technology, and sales/marketing. These business pillars work  closely together.

“That has been hugely important in a year gone by where we’ve never been further apart — but actually we’ve never been closer together,” Moran said.

One important component of the Sparks of Joy initiative was that the company itself brought those sparks of joy into its own work and organisation during the challenging period of the pandemic.

“What a year it has been for journalism overall,” Moran said. There were major stories to cover, not only about COVID-19 but also Brexit in the UK and the U.S. presidential elections. Traffic and subscriptions soared.

“From that perspective, we seemed really solid, but the advertising industry and the partnership model just seemed stuck. Because marketers actually didn’t know what to do next. They didn’t know how to get the right tone of message, they didn’t know if they advertised, was it right?

The Irish Times took a look at its platforms, model, and advertiser relationships to create the Sparks of Joy model.
The Irish Times took a look at its platforms, model, and advertiser relationships to create the Sparks of Joy model.

Moran and her team knew they had to pivot to help their advertising partners succeed in the unprecedented situation of marketing during a pandemic. Nurturing true partner relationships was a vital element of this. The Irish Times needed to understand what each advertiser’s needs and goals were, and to work closely with them to achieve those.

“What we had to do was secure the partnerships that we already had in place,” Moran said. “A huge part of partnerships for us is: know your audience.”

Know your audience for your advertisers

For the Irish Times, the audience is not just its readers. It is also for its advertisers, vendors, and other partners.

Moran expanded on this: “Know what your brands are thinking right now, know what your own audience is thinking, know what changing habits are, and look how we can bring all that together and answer questions that our partners might have.”

She admitted this was difficult as the pandemic set in because everyone’s habits changed seemingly overnight. What the team focused on was what really mattered to people right then.

Sparks of Joy was an initiative that focused on bringing inspiration and messages of hope and fun during the pandemic lockdown.
Sparks of Joy was an initiative that focused on bringing inspiration and messages of hope and fun during the pandemic lockdown.

Creating sparks of joy

The idea for this initiative came to Moran while she was listening to a podcast where the speaker said she put on red lipstick every day, even while working by herself from home, because it was the thing that brought her a “spark of joy” during the difficult time.

“As a [106-year-old] brand, we were already solid in the trusted journalism realm,” she shared. “We were doing well in traffic. But at the same time, I was hearing was that if your subscription model accelerates quickly in this time frame, there’s a really good chance they will leave you quickly — unless you give them reasons to stay.”

These two things came together in a realisation: while The Irish Times’ readers were most certainly turning to the news organisation for information about the virus and related subjects, they also needed those sparks of joy — inspiration and stories of hope and good news in the face of lockdown and a health pandemic.

The goal became to make everything they did meaningful, Moran said. This led to a shift in focus for their audience, with four key areas:

  • Consistent: Build frequency and loyalty, give readers reasons to come back or spend longer on the Web site.
  • Meaningful: Create enough value that readers will share content, recommend Irish Times, or become a subscriber.
  • Consumer-focused: Know what the audience wants right now and what is likely to capture their attention — and how that knowledge can help advertisers and partners.
  • Amplify: Fundamental to their success was incorporating all of this into the social media, tech, and marketing teams.

Big Night In

At the same time this strategy was formulating, an Irish Times journalist who ran the Women’s Podcast was facing the challenge of producing the show from home during lockdown. The one thing she knew was that the podcast’s listeners were a highly engaged community, and she needed to keep that going.

Advertising partner Green & Black’s was a sponsor of the podcast, and part of their agreement was to hold two live, in-person events — obviously something that could no longer be done.

The Women’s Podcast pivoted to “Big Night In,” a Zoom show broadcasting live every other Saturday evening to connect with listeners and offer weekend entertainment whilst everyone was confined at home. The twice-weekly podcast continued and built off Big Night In.

In its first season, Big Night In:

  • Connected the audience with 12 virtual events, all recorded for later podcasts.
  • Extended social media reach on events and audience engagement.
  • Offered subscriber rewards — tickets were free, but subscribers were invited 24 hours in advance.
  • Engagement and feedback — they asked the audience what content they liked and who they would like to see interviewed for Big Night In.

The results were very good, and positive feedback was overwhelming.

Big Night In resulted in virtual events, audience engagement, and opportunities for advertising partners.
Big Night In resulted in virtual events, audience engagement, and opportunities for advertising partners.

“As a result of this, we got very brave,” Moran said. The team expanded Big Night In to create Summer Nights, a four-night festival of conversation, culture, and ideas held in July.

“We knew already this works, so we were very solid in talking to a partner because we know the audience, and because we had the support of our editorial, marketing, and social teams.”

The main mission of the festival was to provide a distraction from the epidemic — those sparks of joy. It also provided a way to generate additional revenue, increase brand awareness, and build a more intimate relationship with the audience. This event was not free; tickets were €40, with half-price tickets for subscribers.

“We were also pushing our traffic because for every event we held, it had a supporting article that went live that night on the site,” Moran said. “What you were getting as a subscriber was the ability to go to 12 events for €20. As a subscriber, this was a super value.”

Advertising sponsors received ads that ran on pre-roll before and at the event, as well as promoted on the accompanying content.

Summer Nights also met with tremendous success:

  • Sold more than 2,000 paid ticket sales.
  • Showcased The Irish Times’ ability to innovate and react to circumstances by creating an opportunity to connect with the audience in a different way.
  • Created a new business model that engaged the audience, generated revenue, increased loyalty, and built brand awareness.

“We created a model that worked,” Moran shared. “It contributed overall to the company strategy to grow audience, grow traffic, and grow subscriptions, and I think that’s hugely important.

The business model continued to work. For 2020, The Irish Times held 56 virtual events that drew more than 25,000 attendees. The company also saw a 61% increase in podcast plays, a 71% increase in app traffic, and a massive increase in subscribers YoY.

“Ultimately, for Sparks of Joy we have had more readers, more subscribers, and now more platforms than we’ve ever had before,” Moran said in conclusion. “It’s a piece in a big jigsaw — a whole lot of other things went on to help grow these numbers, but it is a hugely important part of it. For us it proved that real and trusted content absolutely has value.”

About Shelley Seale

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