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Case Study: How Grist leverages sponsored content to build 360 advertising packages

Published on July 20, 2021 and written by Emily Roseman

Grist is a nonprofit news outlet dedicated to covering climate change, environmental justice and climate solutions. Based in Seattle, the site is known for its reporting on equity, energy and culture. Its solutions lab, Fix, connects climate leaders to each other and to the public through events and networking.

The outlet was founded in 1999 and has been running ads since then. So when Senior Manager of Business Development, Brian Troyer, joined the GNI-INN Sponsorships Lab, he was looking for new and creative ways to level up and streamline the site’s long-standing earned revenue offerings. 

Grist offers clients advertising opportunities on its website, within its events, and across its five newsletters (two daily, three weekly). But the site’s real earned revenue bread-and-butter comes from its sponsored content. In fiscal year (FY) 2020, Grist made over $160,000 in earned revenue, with close to half of that (46%) coming from sponsored content (the other earned revenue streams are email ads, direct display ads, dedicated email, events and special sponsorship). Over a third of all Grist clients purchase sponsored content. 

Grist’s fiscal year 2021 (which started in October) is already impressive, with a 72% growth in sponsored content revenue so far this year. In just the two quarters, Grist surpassed earned income totals and number of clients for all of last year. It had 25 clients in total for FY 2020 and has 34 clients so far for FY 2021. The outlet also grew special sponsorship revenue by 171%.

So, what’s the secret to the record-breaking results? Grist has been hard at work packaging advertising offerings to secure larger and longer-term relationships with partners.

Grist was one of seven outlets that participated in the GNI-INN Sponsorships Lab, a program focused on accelerating revenue for nonprofit news outlets from advertising, sponsorship, and underwriting dollars. Blue Engine Collaborative, a new consortium of independent consultants and advisers with deep experience in driving audience and revenue at for-profits and nonprofits, led the programming. It lasted six months and included a blend of virtual programming, intensive coaching, a community of shared practice, and a capacity-building grant. See the Nonprofit News Guide to Earned Revenue for best practices from the program. Across revenue from advertising, sponsorships and underwriting, and events, the seven publishers in the Lab reported more than 81% YOY growth.

Sponsored content

Sponsored content is when a client works with the Grist team to publish a story about its product, event or company. Grist publishes all sponsored content with the byline of Grist Creative and the sponsor’s name, and each sponsored post is granted one week of exclusivity on Grist’s site. 

Troyer keeps track of all the sponsored content pieces through a shared, sitewide calendar. The calendar is mostly used by Troyer to track earned revenue, and the small-dollar donor program to make sure advertisements and calls-to-action for small-dollar donors don’t overlap.

Grist labels all sponsored content with the “Grist Creative” byline, and also includes the name of the company sponsoring the post. 

Here’s how sponsored content is produced at Grist: Troyer works with the client to develop a theme or broad topic for the story. Then, Grist hands off the story idea to a freelance editor and writer, who puts together a first draft of 700 to 1,000 words. Grist then shares the first draft with the client, who has an opportunity to edit or change the direction of the post. After the client’s feedback is incorporated, Grist will share it back with the freelance editor to take a final look. Their mission is to match the quality and tone of any  other article that would appear on the site. 

Grist has about six or seven freelancers on standby who write sponsored content — and none of these writers are a part of Grist’s editorial team. This firewall is a standard practice for most nonprofit news outlets — see page 58 of the Nonprofit News Guide to Earned Revenue  for more on sponsored content and ethics.

Each sponsored content post sells for $6,000 per piece, and Troyer estimates that the outlet makes $4,500 in profit per piece after factoring in costs for the freelancer and any paid promotion on social media (which generally costs $300 per piece to purchase Facebook ads). 

Clients tell Troyer that they like Grist’s sponsored content because of the collaborative process: Clients can be involved in the story summary, and first and second drafts. Another selling point is that after Grist posts sponsored content, Troyer and the team promote the articles in their newsletter and on social media, including within Facebook ads. 

About one week after the story has been published, Troyer delivers back to the client article views, time spent and engagement metrics. 

The power of packaging 

Before the GNI-INN Sponsorships Lab, Grist thought about “packaging” in terms of grouping together sponsored content offerings for clients. For example, when a client requested a single sponsored content post, the Grist team would pitch a sponsored content series of two or three stories. 

Today, Troyer and the team think about packaging in a more holistic way. They have started to leverage their premium sponsored content as a hook for other earned revenue opportunities, and also as an additional offering for clients that are initially interested in display or newsletter advertising. 

The Sponsorships Lab programming and Grist’s coach, Steve Shalit, pushed Troyer and the Grist team to consider ways to sell solutions, which lead to their new approach to packaging — and their historic growth. Now, when a client reaches out for a display advertising opportunity, Troyer will make sure the client knows about all of Grist’s advertising opportunities. If he piques any interest, he’ll try to package a few things together, like a sponsored content post, a few display ads, and then one or two dedicated emails over the course of one or two months. The big value add for clients is creating multiple touch points over a longer period of time. 

Use this resource: Starting with your client’s goals is a key foundation of the consultative or solutions selling approach, a strategy outlined in the Nonprofit News Guide to Earned Revenue (see page 37).  

In early conversations with clients and potential clients, Grist focuses on deeply understanding their campaign needs and overall goals. If the client has an easy pitch to make to audiences, like advertising an upcoming event, sometimes a display advertising series will work best. If the client has a story to tell or a more complicated pitch, sponsored content typically makes more sense. Troyer helps clients think through what they need, and how this should impact the timing and process of their advertising or sponsorship campaigns. He generally recommends that a client starts by running ads on the site to get readers familiar with the brand or company. Then, they’ll publish a sponsored post or two a few weeks later. 

Here’s an example of packaging in action: Grist landed a major deal at the end of its last fiscal year. The ad campaign was going so well (Grist had just published a sponsored post), that the client followed up with Grist and asked to do more.

Tip: Strike while the iron is hot, then immediately try to build a connection. When a prospective or new client reaches out to Troyer through the form on Grist’s website, he uses a lesson learned from the GNI-INN Sponsorships Lab: strike while the iron is hot. Troyer immediately calls the prospective client to follow up on their outreach and starts finding ways to build connections and trust. 

Grist was about to roll out a website rebranding with a new tagline, “climate, justice, solutions.” Troyer spoke with the client and shared a mock-up. He also used this touchpoint as an opportunity to learn more about his client’s campaign goals. The result of the conversations with the company: a nine-month, $50,000 package that included three sponsored content posts, a quarterly dedicated email send, and ads on the site for most of the timeframe. This large, 360 ad package for the client was made possible because of that initial sponsored content sale — and by focusing on selling solutions. 

Tip: Leverage your news outlet’s improvements as a selling point. In Grist’s case, a big website redesign allowed Troyer and his team to engage clients with a preview. This rebranding gave Troyer talking points to use with current and potential clients, which lets the Grist team show how they are a valuable and ever-improving platform for businesses to reach new audiences. Thankfully, Grist’s website redesign garnered positive media attention, which gave Troyer yet another opportunity to discuss opportunities  with partners and prospects. 

Sourcing ideas for clients

The vast majority of Grist’s clients (80% to 90%) are national brands. The remainder are local companies, which will often want to work with Grist to target specific audiences (particularly email subscribers in a certain region). 

Grist’s Advertising page includes this friendly and short form. 

About half of Grist’s clients come to Troyer organically, meaning they are already familiar with Grist or are fans of the outlet’s work. 

Other times, Troyer is reaching out to leads and spending time explaining what Grist is, the news outlet’s values and audiences, and reviewing advertising and sponsorship opportunities. Troyer finds new leads by looking at the advertisers of other regional or national nonprofit news outlets, including Mother Jones and High Country News. He also subscribed to newsletters for Grist’s peer sites to see who’s buying ads in similar newsletter products. A final tip from Troyer on how to find new prospects: Keep an eye out for awards in your field. For Troyer, he’s always on the lookout for sustainability awards — using a quick note of “congratulations on the award” as a way to meet prospects who are mission-aligned with Grist.

Tip: Get personal. Troyer noticed an uptick in client outreach after revamping its advertising page, one part of Grist’s major site redesign. Now, the advertising page has a quick form at the bottom where clients can select a few things they’re interested in. There’s a photo of Troyer at the bottom of the page to show the form goes to a real person. After making that change, more potential clients address Troyer by name in emails, which he thinks is a better place to start building a relationship. This is all part of the Lab’s emphasis on leveraging your unique value proposition and continually prospecting and telling your story — and what is different about your company.

Grist takes a similar ethical stance as many nonprofit news outlets do when it comes to working with clients — they’re looking to partner with mission-aligned groups. As Troyer put it: “We’re never going to work with Exxon Mobil.” Troyer vets every company and potential clients that come across his desk to learn about the company’s products and mission. If a company raises a concern, like one potential client that produced a “clean” fuel additive, Troyer will take it to Grist’s managers’ meeting. In that case, the team decided not to pursue a partnership. See page 58 of the Nonprofit News Guide to Earned Revenue for more on how to navigate the ethical issues around sponsored content and to stay mission-centered. 

“Grist was able to significantly increase sponsored content revenue by packaging stories for clients as extended sponsorable series options rather than as one-off offers as they had previously.” – Steve Shalit, Grist’s GNI-INN Sponsorships Lab coach and director of business development at NJ Spotlight

What’s next for Grist? 

Grist is thinking of ways to leverage existing editorial series and products for sponsorship opportunities. Troyer’s team is also brainstorming other ways they can even more proactively get in front of potential clients. One idea: sending a dedicated email to their newsletter lists to outline advertising opportunities. 

They’re also considering how to lean more into events in the year ahead. Grist Creative works well as a sponsored content umbrella, so they’re considering starting a new Grist Creative Events arm. 

Overall, the Sponsorships Lab inspired a growth mind-set for Troyer and the Grist team. As he put it: “It was eye opening to see what is possible. We’ve had some great success over the past few years, but the program really showed us how much more we can grow.” 

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