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Ads for good: Inside Positive News’ Brands of Inspiration

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Positive News are the “pioneers of constructive journalism,” with a website and magazine dedicated to telling the stories of progress, possibility and solutions in an increasingly chaotic world. It is a co-operative owned by readers and journalists worldwide, with more than 1,500 people investing in the publication through their 2015 #OwnTheMedia crowdfunding campaign. 

As you’d expect from a magazine which aims to change the news for good, they have a rather innovative approach to advertising. Here, we take a look inside Positive News’ ‘Brands of Inspiration’, and how organisations work in partnership with the publisher to have a more positive impact.

Image via Positive News

A different way of doing advertising

When Positive News was relaunched as a magazine in 2016, the team drew up a new business model that was centred on a community of support. When designing the revenue mix, Positive News Publisher Seán Dagan Wood knew that traditional advertising just wouldn’t work for the brand.

“It was a declining market in print; we didn’t yet have the scale to compete or make an effective return; we didn’t want to disrupt the reader experience in print or online and it didn’t match our focus on putting our journalism and community of support first,” he told WNIP.

“Yet I know there were companies, social enterprises and charities that had positive stories to tell and wanted to communicate to our audience…and these kinds of organisations were ones that our audience would actually like to hear about, so there was an opportunity.”

The partnership scheme therefore serves a dual purpose of protecting the high levels of trust Positive News has with its readers, but also presents a premium marketing opportunity for companies with purpose. The Brands of Inspiration partners are seen as a key part of the Positive News community according to Wood.

The result is a genuine partnership between the publisher and supporting brands. Supporting companies get branded content online and in print and advertising in the print magazine, as well as general promotion as a Brands of Inspiration partner. Wood and the team encourage the partnership to run for anything from a minimum of three months up to a year to give time to build the relationship between the brand and the readers.

“Rather than join the race to the bottom with what’s left of traditional advertising, or reject advertising completely and focus exclusively on reader revenue…we created a unique blended approach that matched our values and ambitions,” Wood explained.

Framing inspirational brands

Anyone who picks up a copy of Positive News will see that the print adverts are done a little differently. Each one has its own page frame which sits around the advert, highlighting that this is a ‘Brand of Inspiration’.

Some examples of a ‘Brands of Inspiration’ ad page. Image via Positive News.

Wood explains that although this is unusual, this ‘design furniture’ is beneficial both to the readers and the advertisers. “It communicates to our readers…that we respect their attention and the trust they place in us, and that the advert won’t conflict with the inspiring lens on the world that our journalism provides.”

For the partner brand, this framing delivers “great added value” by reinforcing the association with Positive News, as well as increased engagement from the audience by essentially highlighting the advert. The page frame shows that there is an ongoing relationship, and “it’s not just any company with the funds to buy an ad.”

There’s also a design benefit, of course. “The page frames also means that visually, the ads fit better with the magazine design,” said Wood. “We have high production values based on a cheeky idea that we think the news can in fact be beautiful.”

The magazine’s partners have embraced this way of doing adverts, compared to traditional full-bleed pages. “They get it straight away and embrace it,” said Wood. “The brand association with Positive News that the page frames provide means that more of our readers engage with their ads.”

Brands don’t just get a print ad as part of the partnership. The key service Positive News sells as part of this deal is branded content, written by Positive News’ own journalists, which is often done alongside direct partner advertising.

“This means that they can directly communicate their marketing messages through their ads, while we dig into an issue that matters to the partner brand,” explained Wood. This type of content “delivers more for a partner in terms of brand perception,” but the audience also get “more stories with substance that they want to read.”

Positive brands for Positive News

One of the first questions that comes to mind with the Brands of Inspiration scheme is, what exactly classifies as an ‘inspirational brand,’ and are there companies that the publisher turns away?

Wood’s response is both surprising and refreshing. “While many corporations are purely profit-focused and just market a pretence of doing good, there are many other companies who may not be perfect, but are making genuine efforts to try and have a more positive social and environmental impact,” he explained. “These are the kind of companies we focus on working with, as well as outright ethical brands.”

This may seem like a cop-out, but Wood insists that larger organisations especially are often shy of telling the story of how they are taking steps to do more good.

“They are so used to the media just picking up on the areas where they fall short, or if they do try to create a positive message, it’s superficial,” he said. “By creating the Brands of Inspiration community, we want to offer a space for a constructive look at how business can be an increasing part of the solution to the challenges the world faces.”

He also emphasised that there is still an essential need for journalism to hold corporate power to account. “We wouldn’t work with fossil fuel companies, because as organisations driving the climate crisis and not stepping up adequately to their power and responsibility to address that crisis, that would be in direct conflict with our understanding of what is ‘positive’,” Wood said.

“But as a softer example, we recently turned down a highly selective dating site because their service conflicted with our inclusive values, and the company wasn’t actively working towards any social benefit.

“We want to be as inclusive as possible where there is genuine progress happening within companies, but if they aren’t in any way part of the solution, then they aren’t for us.”

Having a Positive effect

With advertisers becoming much more aware of brand safety and the type of content their ads appear alongside, it’s a good time for Positive News to be in business. Wood highlighted that brands are much more aware of responsible and trusted media brands, and the halo effect from being a Brand of Inspiration gives strong added value.

“Showing that they care about and are supporting solutions to social and environmental challenges is of increasing importance to many businesses,” he said. “Brands are also wanting to build deeper relationships with targeted audiences…if they just want reach above all, they won’t come to us.”

Wood predicted that the ethics of media buying choices is going to be high on the industry’s agenda for the next few years. The Stop Funding Hate campaign has been seeing success, and there are other organisations launching such as the Conscious Advertising Network, which is aiming to ensure that industry ethics catches up with modern advertising.

“Astute brands recognise the value of being associated with ethical media, and the damage of being associated with toxic media brands,” explained Wood. “So they want to be associated with Positive News as a brand.”

Ad frames and branded content are certainly nothing revelatory, but the way Positive News is bringing advertisers on board as part of a genuine partnership that really cares about driving change is refreshing.

“We see our Brands of Inspiration partners as part of our community who share a vision for a thriving society, served by a responsible and constructive media,” said Wood.

And let’s face it, some good news is just what we need right now…