The American Chemical Society Creates an Ad Agency Experience

light bulb idea Associations Now May/June 2017 Issue By: Emily Bratcher

The American Chemical Society launches BrandLab, which offers advertisers an agency experience from the association. It also brings in some major nondues revenue.

What do advertisers really want from association publications? Sure, they pay for ad space to promote their products and services in print and online, but what they really want is for the association’s editors to write stories about them—preferably in glowing terms.

Of course, journalistic ethics get in the way of this type of earned media. But what if advertisers could pay to have their stories told? That’s the question that Stephanie Holland asked.

Holland, manager of advertising, sales, and marketing at the American Chemical Society, had watched as ACS’s revenues from traditional print advertising were dropping, even as revenues from content marketing were rising.

“We’ve seen a bunch of our advertisers move into doing content marketing on their own,” Holland says, referring to paid articles on substantive topics that aim to drive interest in a company’s offerings without being overtly promotional. But sometimes those campaigns weren’t as effective as they could be. The copywriting wasn’t polished, or the tone wasn’t right for the ACS audience.

No one knows ACS members as well as ACS itself, Holland thought, so wouldn’t it make sense for the association to help its advertisers carry out their content marketing strategies?

It's not a matter of 'if you build it, they will come.'—Stephanie Holland, American Chemical Society

This line of thinking led ACS to launch BrandLab, essentially an in-house ad agency that sits within the sales and marketing division of ACS’s Chemical and Engineering News media channel. Its placement on the sales side was “extremely important for us, because we want to maintain a church and state,” Holland said, meaning a distinct line between sales and editorial had to be protected.

Now, instead of asking advertisers if they’d like to buy an online banner ad or a page in the magazine, the BrandLab team helps them think through concepts they are interested in sharing with ACS members. And then the team gets to work, creating a narrative around the advertiser’s concept and applying the same dynamic storytelling techniques and tone to those stories that its editors apply to the publication’s editorial content.

But it doesn’t stop there. “It’s not a matter of ‘if you build it, they will come,’” Holland says. “We knew that we needed to drive engagement to the content as well.”

To that end, the BrandLab team makes the content marketing stories discoverable in search and promotes them via newsletters, email blasts, social media posts, and more.

It’s a sophisticated service and comes with a high price tag. In its six-figure contract with one major client, “about 60 percent of that was for content creation and distribution, and the other 40 percent of it was the promotion,” Holland says.

“What we’re really trying to do is give our audience of advertisers a chance to tell stories in the same way that our magazine does organically,” she says.

[This article was originally published in the Associations Now print edition, titled "Ad Lab."]

Emily Bratcher

Emily Bratcher is an associate editor at Associations Now in Washington, DC.