Gannett On Why National Brands Are Going Big In Local Markets

Gannett CRO Kevin Gentzel

After this exclusive first look for subscribers, the story by AdExchanger’s Allison Schiff will be published in full on AdExchanger.com.

Gannett CRO Kevin Gentzel kicks off nearly every morning by checking in virtually with one of the local sales teams that represent the hundreds of local media properties in the USA Today Network, from Indianapolis to the Treasure Coast of Florida.

And he often ends his day on his Peloton for a joint ride with one client followed by a Zoom cocktail with another.

In between, you might find him examining the client pipeline in a local market, talking to Gannett’s chief product or strategy officer, working with the executive team on developing Gannett’s 2021-2025 action plan, “geeking out” on revenue analytics and mentoring a junior employee over the phone.

“It’s just a day in the life of a CRO during the pandemic,” Gentzel said.

He spoke with AdExchanger.

AdExchanger: What are your top priorities for 2021 and beyond?

KEVIN GENTZEL: We’re continuing our evolution into a subscription-led company, both on the consumer side with digital subscriptions, but also on the B2B side.

The relationship we have with clients who partner with us for digital marketing services is a recurring, subscriber-like relationship. The products we build help us retain them.

For example, we go to market with a digital marketing and advertising service called LOCALiQ that provides free tools that help our clients grade their website and their marketing to see how they’re doing against the competition. That’s bundled into a hub where local businesses and SMBs can also get access to their campaign data and other tools and technologies that come out of our product team.

Has the pandemic had a positive impact on consumer subscriptions?

We had 172 million uniques in March 2020 across the USA Today Network, according to Comscore. That translates to 260 community media sites that reach roughly 80% of the addressable market for adults in the US.

We’re seeing significant increases in the amount of time readers are spending with us, which helped us cross the 1 million mark for digital subscriptions in 2020.

Our job has always been to keep the members of these communities informed, entertained and educated. But our role has now evolved to also keeping them safe. Even though the pandemic is global, it’s very local in nature. Our coverage reflects that. We also covered the civil unrest that took place this summer across the country from a local perspective in the many markets in our footprint.

How has the print business been going?

Print continues to be an important part of our business, both for readers and advertisers. National brands are buying into local newspapers to reach local audiences. In 2020, we had Google, Facebook, Bank of America, Subway, McDonald’s, Netflix, Dell, Geicko and T-Mobile, just to name a few, who worked with us in local markets. They did this not just on digital, but also in print.

We’re 10 months in. Have your advertisers changed their buying behavior since the start of the pandemic?

It really is all about local. There was a double, even a triple, whammy in 2020 with COVID, the civil rights protests and the election. Together, they drove national brands to place even more emphasis on reaching people in local communities, in the environments they trust.

National brands will keep investing in local markets, and we see our community-based journalism and ability to work with local businesses as a big part of our growth opportunity in 2021.

What are some other creative ways for publishers to generate revenue during these uncertain times? Forgive me for using that phrase.

One way is to shift live events into virtual experiences, which our events team had to do a lot of in 2020 and pretty much on the fly. The USA Today High School Sports Awards, for example, was phenomenal, in terms of the sponsorships we had, the attendance and the participants, including [Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes] and [New England Patriots] Coach Bill Belichick.

We realized that virtual events can be engaging and that we have the potential to build a virtual business to live alongside our live business when it returns, whenever that is.

We also spent 2020 experimenting with new advertising and marketing technologies, like a new beta product we’re tentatively calling “Cross Media” that helps local businesses figure out the best channel and the optimal time to acquire a customer and make their dollars as effective as possible. This is in beta right now in certain markets in Florida.

Are you going to do more with first-party data going forward?

As you might imagine, we’re spending a significant amount of time thinking about our first-party and zero-party data segments. We view the cookieless future as a big opportunity for publishers like us, whether that’s through subscriptions or registrations or taking our audience segments to our clients.

We’re the one with the first-party relationship and we need to reclaim it.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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