NPR Proceeds With Caution in Sale of Digital Sponsorships

As National Public Radio’s digital presence evolves, it’s taking special care with sponsorships of new platforms, even though they’re unregulated. In conjunction with a site re-launch earlier this week, the nonprofit media organization is planning its first official iPhone app, and new mobile formats for its underwriters.

Visa sponsored the site re-launch Monday with a display ad roadblock touting its Signature Card. Though users may not notice the distinctions between a standard display ad message and the sponsorship messages seen on, they’re there. The Visa display units, for instance, promoted the card as a way to get deals on Broadway show tickets or hotel reservations. However there was no direct call to action or transactional language.

The NPR sponsorship team works with each sponsor to craft messages that create awareness or describe products without seeming like bold sales pitches. It’s all in keeping with NPR’s traditional media legacy of quasi commercial breaks that don’t offend listeners — or the Federal Communications Commission. For decades, NPR has had to abide by the FCC’s restrictions on advertising in conjunction with its public funding. In lieu of commercial advertisements, NPR’s radio broadcasts include underwriting messages from big donors.

Although NPR is not restricted by such rules on digital media platforms, the organization recognizes the importance of maintaining the spirit of the guidelines in Web and mobile environments.

“It’s something that we try and navigate every day,” said Bryan Moffett, director of digital sponsorship operations at NPR.

NPR’s digital sponsorships are done in a way that’s “very similar to how a commercial Web site would do it,” said National Public Media SVP Blake Truitt. The difference, though, is the organization must meet the expectations of NPR listeners who are accustomed to short and subtle sponsorship messages. Digital advertisers have included Progressive Insurance, Bank of America, and American Express, along with movie studios and record labels. Jazz label Verve plans to sponsor NPR’s Music site to promote a series of album releases.

According to Truitt, digital sponsorships account for about 15 percent of overall sponsorship revenue, up from around 10 percent last year.

A display placement for American Express’s entrepreneur-aimed site Open Forum seen on the site this week read, “See how business owners are innovating, connecting, and taking charge.” A related video unit for the financial services firm featured video clips organized into categories like marketing and leadership. The display units are labeled, “NPR thanks our supporting sponsors.”

Its latest offering is a sponsorship of a soon-to-launch Apple iPhone application, the first officially-branded NPR app. The banner unit links to the sponsor site, launching an overlay browser window; this allows the user to interact with the sponsor’s site without leaving the application. The organization also offers mobile banners on WAP sites, standard display, and pre-roll audio in-stream and in podcasts; pre-roll spots are limited to one 10-second unit.

NPR revealed its site redesign Monday, making headlines for focusing more on text-based content than video. The new version includes more images and enhanced integration of audio and article content.

The organization has three sales people dedicated to selling digital sponsorships, and nine who sell both radio and digital. About half of the sponsors buy digital exclusively, according to Truitt.

He said he doesn’t believe some sponsors favor NPR’s digital offerings over its traditional radio sponsorships just because they’re less restricted. “I don’t want it to be the safe haven for sponsors that sell products to NPR enthusiasts,” said Truitt. “Some marketers just don’t have radio budgets at all. They don’t think of radio, but they do think of the Internet.”

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