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Marketers, Support Indie Pubs Too Dammit

Here's what Codeword is doing to support our favorite media outlets while we build our own brand.

November 20, 2023

Headshot of Katy Kelley

Katy Kelley

SVP, Marketing and Brand

There’s a media revolution brewing, and we’re here for it.

Once-big, once-buzzy media outlets are navigating challenges in their attempts to generate profits for their PE and VC owners, resulting in the typical negative corporate behaviors we expect: digital noise, gimmicky content plays, and absolutely brutal rounds of layoffs and closures. The casualties have included some of the world’s best journalists and most respected, most influential media orgs, like Jezebel just last week. 

But flowers are growing in the cracks. As Today in Tabs’ Rusty Foster puts it

“… there will always be people with no other interests or life skills except finding out what’s happening and writing it down … when things look the most bleak—that’s when your true reporter goblins come out to play.”

Writers gonna write. And so we’re seeing a boom in both micro-media outlets on Substack, and journalists banding together to form their own publications where they can continue their work and contributions to culture. 

At Codeword, we’re cheering this shift. And not just in the “sending them good vibes” way, more in the “sending them checks” way. 

Because there’s a massive uphill challenge here, as 404 Media’s Jason Koebler put it in a LinkedIn post last week: 

“Brand safety” and “suitability” is destroying news sites and journalism. Marketers and brands need to stop being cowardly and understand that readers like news, are dedicated to websites that do news and journalism about difficult topics, and that there is no risk to advertising on websites that do news.”

We agree. Traditional media buying strategy says that content adjacency is everything, and all eyeballs are the same, so go find the broadest, most inoffensive media platforms. That approach not only discredits the legacy many mainstream journalists have spent their careers building, but also ignores the immense brand love and trust that smaller outlets can have with their readers. 

These grassroots platforms are excellent places for brands like Codeword to play, because they embody authenticity, diversity, real community building, and the raw spirit of storytelling that goes beyond the mundania. They’re doing what traditional media has often struggled with, building a platform around important work they love doing, and gathering a community of supporters who find that work valuable.

It’s hard to put a valuation against that kind of audience love, but it’s the exact dynamic that brands should be looking for. It’s a simple balance theory equation: “This brand supports the newsletter I like!” 

That’s not to say mainstream media’s influence isn’t valuable—we deeply respect many of those publications. We pay for subscriptions, keep our ad-blockers off, and cheer for the in-depth investigative news story that rocks the world. But it’s tough to ignore what’s happening in the media landscape, and advocating for indie voices is what’s needed right now.

I’ve spent years working in marcomms, from hip digital startups to FAANG (Maang? Mamaa?) companies. Now on my second tour of duty at Codeword, my first spent as the creative lead for the Snapchat account, my mandate is to grow the agency’s awareness, especially in tech, marketing, and media circles. Codeword has always been a very secretive brand (secrecy is in the name itself), and we don’t have the same marketing budgets as bigger agencies that are competing for flashy awards, big sponsorships, and massive parties. 

So as we’ve been working to build our agency awareness, we’ve needed to take a non-traditional approach. We can’t advertise just for advertising’s sake, and we aren’t trying to drive e-commerce conversions with perfectly optimized CTAs, CTRs, KPIs, etc. We want digital marketers to know us as an agency that does creative, smart, real work. We want journalists to know us so they open the pitch emails from our PR team. And we want the broader media and marketing world to know us so they want to come work here. 

Our audience is, well, a lot like us. Why not put our brand in the places where we hang out? What if we focused on being one of the first partnership checks our favorite journalists and creators get? Why not build brand love by showing our own love for our favorite up-and-coming media brands?

And so we built a spreadsheet for our team to share our favorite newsletters, podcasts, and emerging media companies. We’ve kept a close eye on newly launched publications, and used our own media connections to build relationships with them. Instead of selling out, we started buying in, and writing checks for ad placements, podcast partnerships, and sponsored newsletters. 

Our first round of placements went live over the past couple weeks, in Dirt’s new newsletter about fan communities, and with a cross-channel partnership with 404 Media. And we’re having some fun with the messaging…

You’ll see our logo in many more places in the coming weeks and months, specifically in publications that talk to digital media professionals and marketers, and play in the spaces where that venn diagram overlaps. 

And it’s not just about supporting their content. We aren’t trying to be benevolent patrons over here. It’s about placing our logo into vibrant ecosystems of creative ideas that resonate with our brand, spark meaningful conversations, and amplify our presence in the digital spaces where a creator mindset thrives. 

We feel immense pride in championing voices like 404 Media, Dirt, and many of the incredible publications that bless our inboxes daily. We believe in the power of these independent voices to shape cultural narratives, challenge norms, and provide unique perspectives. And we believe in the effectiveness of these partnerships as brand builders, for ourselves and for many other brands. We might not be able to afford these placements a year from now, and that’d be just fine with us.

How Marketers Benefit From Supporting Indie Pubs:

  1. Meeting Niche Audiences: The internet is vast and deep, allowing indie pubs to thrive in places generally untouchable by mega-conglomerates. It allows for specificity with audience targets, while supporting diverse voices and perspectives.
  2. Access to Emerging Trends: Leave it to passionate journalists and communities to stay at the forefront of emerging trends and discussions. Marketers supporting these outlets can gain insights into evolving consumer preferences well ahead of any year-end trend report.
  3. Company Pride: When marketers align their company values with their advertising dollars, they’re not only raising awareness, but making employees and clients proud when they stumble across ads in the outlets they know and love.
  4. Beyond the plug’n’play: Independent media is more agile and innovative, allowing for stories and communities to scale without permission. They are likely to experiment with new advertising formats or approaches, giving marketers a chance to act more like creators, instead of just pumping out CTAs.

Image of Codeword's ad's for 404 media. It has a picture of codewords logo, and says "The only creative agency sponsoring your favorite newsletters, Check Us Out".

Codeword Logo