SCMP’s formula for early advertising recovery amid Covid-19 pandemic

September 8, 2021
SCMP Insights
It’s often said that a commercial organisation is only as good as its sales teams, so this high-focus role often comes with much more stress than others. 
The South China Morning Post, which has been presenting quarterly “value hero awards” in celebration of our company’s values for years, has just awarded the latest team award to our Hong Kong advertising sales team for their exceptional performance in recent months. Their work has ultimately led to the company’s early recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic.

The author with the Post's Hong Kong advertising sales team at this quarter's value hero awards

Last year the outbreak of the coronavirus disease created havoc for the global advertising industry – not least in Hong Kong, which was still reeling from the effects of the city’s 2019 pro-democracy protests. However, the SCMP’s Hong Kong team were quick to adapt to the new advertising landscape and by the second half of the year they were able to turn things around. The company’s advertising business recovered because of the following strategic priorities put in place early on:

A dynamic shift of our focus into new sectors
Traditionally the SCMP has attracted advertising from many sectors including airlines, restaurants, hotels, and retail, but we had to quickly change our priorities as these became the sectors that were most badly affected by the pandemic. In last year’s second quarter we prioritised pitching to companies that were listing in Hong Kong as the Hong Kong stock market saw a surge in fundraising activity – driving the global initial public offering market in spite of the pandemic. 
By the fourth quarter we then shifted some of our resources into handling recovering sectors such as Luxury. We also had to familiarise ourselves with new sectors and develop different solutions, ensuring we updated our suite of offerings. We were one of the first few who launched sponsored virtual events such as Beyond Covid-19: Global Tourism’s new Normal and experimenting with hybrid events including WRLCTY 2020.  

SCMP Advertising’s brand studio, Morning Studio produced The Moon is Leaving Us in partnership with Audemars Piguet, won silver for Best Native Advertising/Branded Content Campaign at the 2021 Asia Digital Media Awards
Quickly adapting to the new landscape by doubling down on our digital proposition 
We not only adapted to the new pandemic market landscape, but also embraced it. Early on during the outbreak we focused on ensuring that our teams were effective at “pandemic pitching”. This placed greater emphasis on the benefits of consistent brand awareness especially during a pandemic, resulting in the launch of campaigns including Healthy Living: Tech for Good and The World’s Lab

The global advertising industry has just recorded its strongest growth rate in more than 10 years with digital advertising leading that increase, according to quarterly investment forecasts in WARC Data’s July “Global Ad Trends” report. As marketing budgets continued to move from traditional to digital, direct to programmatic and third party to first party, SCMP Advertising responded by developing two highly successful proprietary digital advertising solutions – the first-party audience activation and insights platform, Lighthouse, and the award-winning brand safety and suitability tool, Signal. Both were designed to increase the value of our digital advertising proposition.
We courageously pitched our brand safety and suitability tools so we would be able to target audiences based on our data-led understanding of context and sentiment while the internet was bombarded day and night with news of the pandemic. 
One insurance advertiser rolled out a campaign introducing a new health product, and instead of originally wanting to avoid pandemic-related articles entirely, we convinced the advertiser to trust in Signal, to ensure that its creatives appeared in suitable environments while also relying on the tool to provide our campaign managers with insights into the performance. 
Instead of avoiding Covid-19-related articles, we used the tool’s sentiment-targeting capabilities to place the creatives across positive-, negative- and neutral-sentiment Covid-19 articles, optimising the campaign towards the desired performance along the way. Through our understanding of sentiment and context, Signal was able to place more ads against articles on better-performing environments, resulting in an increase in click-through rate from 0.14 per cent to 0.23 cent.
We also used our first-party audience activation and insights platform, Lighthouse, to educate clients about the benefits of leveraging quality audience data to build, scale and target audiences – both old and new – to address abrupt changes in consumer behaviour and the competitive landscape.
In recent months, we have seen a rise in the number of advertisers from various industries coming to us because they recognise the value of our first-party data capabilities when targeting business decision-makers, parenting and education, banking & finance, small and medium-sized enterprises and start-ups, and property audiences.
By last year’s fourth quarter, our digital revenues had almost doubled compared with the second quarter. Digital advertising growth from the luxury and financial sectors almost tripled, while those from the technology and education sectors more than doubled, driven by both online display and content campaigns –  specifically branded content where advertisers came to us because they valued SCMP’s editorial voice
Positioning SCMP as a market leader in data-driven publisher branded content 
A research report published in June by Research Drive said that despite the Covid-19 tragedy, the global content marketing industry is expected to generate a revenue of US$137.2 million and surge at a compound annual growth rate of 16.2 per cent between 2020 and 2027. 
For SCMP, advertising revenues contributed by content marketing solutions have been in recovery since last year’s fourth quarter – demonstrating a growth of 200 per cent compared with 2020’s first quarter.
Content became essential to our clients as the pandemic affected how they were able to physically interact with customers, and so our content solutions were a way for them not only to remain in touch, but also to validate audiences in a market landscape that’s undergoing changes.
Catastrophic global events such as a pandemic are expected to have dramatic and lasting effects on consumer insights, and so one of SCMP advertising’s earlier pandemic go-to-market strategies was to proactively pitch content ideas from our dedicated branded content studio, Morning Studio, powered by insights from Lighthouse, our first-party audience insights platform. 
Lighthouse was able to inform our studio editors not only about the latest trending topics on, but granular information on a specific audience segment on, with the readers’ demographics such as gender, age, life stage, or changes (if any) to their content consumption patterns, and changes (if any) to their intent for certain products and services. 
Brands were also engaging SCMP advertising in campaigns aimed at finding out if there’s been a shift in brand perception. These campaigns were driven by content pieces and then followed by poll questions and brand lift studies.

World’s Lab poll questions

Content marketing was already expected to grow – even before the pandemic hit – and so SCMP Advertising was fortunate to have spent previous years trying to gain a more thorough understanding of the demand for content. As a result we have a suite of content solutions that cater to a range of content marketing needs – from creation, curation and distribution to syndication, across a variety of campaign types from branding to tactical, on a range of topics in which we demonstrate expertise in, such as Luxury, Technology and Finance, and of course anything that revolves around the rise of Asia-Pacific and China and, lastly, creatively executed through a number of formats, from videos and infographics to events.

All of these solutions ensured that when the competition became cutthroat we remained highly competitive.