For Freelancers Union, Creative And Media Are One Thing

john-donahueFreelancers Union is seeing powerful results after a marketing revamp that has it churning out more content and shifting spend to native ads and programmatic display.

Chief Marketing Officer John Donahue describes a move away from campaign thinking to "always on" communications. That change, underway for several months, is centered on daily amplification of content through native ads and audience buying.

"It took the brand internalizing creative work and viewing media as a system of technology that you leverage and that you speak through creatively," Donahue said. "It's all about combining native and real-time bidding. It's hard because you make a lot of content, but once you get that system set up the results are epic."

How Epic? In the last six months Freelancers Union was able to cut media costs 70% while doubling performance against key metrics. But more on that in a minute.


Founded 20 years ago, Freelancers Union is a non-profit organization geared to the creative class that refers members to its for-profit sibling, Freelancers Insurance Company. It also offers a freelance directory and a member-to-member discount program so designers, technologists, accountants and other professionals can scratch each others' backs.

It spends more than $1 million annually on digital media, but is best known for its subway ads. If you live in New York you've seen them – boldly designed posters influenced by Russian agitprop and Dadaism. Those ads aren't going away, but the way Freelancers Union thinks about them is.

For instance: With a recent creative idea it developed eight versions of a subway ad, one generic version followed by career-specific variations for designers, lawyers, and other professions in its target market. It backed that up with a banner buy. Thirty to 40 pieces of content laddered into one subway ad.

Donahue, who previously held senior roles with Socialistic and Omnicom Media Group, credits the subway ads with FU's huge awareness in the New York community. (Over half of its 200,000 members live in this state.)

"It's a tent pole placement that we will never walk away from. It's who we are," he said. "It's when you combine subway with the constant communications, with the native advertising, with the technology-driven media buying that you hit a core where growth just starts happening."

Media Changes

Even as the MTA relationship remains largely intact, many other line items in Freelancers Union's media strategy have been reevaluated and in some cases tossed from the hive to make way for native ad formats and programmatic buying. The cornerstone of all this is its in-house content factory.

The organization adheres to a strict content calendar, creating and distributing 150 pieces of content a week by Donahue's count. Development is spearheaded by an "internal creative agency" that includes a creative director, copywriter, and designer. Their output is pushed into owned media channels, including the non-profit's blog and social media accounts, then amplified through native and programmatic ad channels.

Freelancers Union began implementing its native ad strategy in early fall 2012, deploying content on Facebook, Twitter, and BuzzFeed. "These are great impressions as they are impressions seen and not served," according to Donahue, who says managing the social/native ad campaigns became an evening personal project. "I'm a media geek. It was my nightly distraction."

Freelancers Union layered on the digital audience-buying component shortly thereafter, in approximately November.  It works with independent trading desk Digilant on its programmatic activities. For the remainder of this year, Digilant will place impressions on its behalf every day.

The display strategy includes context, audience, and retargeting. Initially Donahue put more money into contextual placements, but as the campaign went on the center of gravity shifted to audience and remessaging buys "because the campaign was blooming… Programmatic is an efficient way to map your business plan through media."


In the six months since realigning around content, native ads, and audience buying, Freelancers Union has doubled new memberships per month, from 1,600 per month before the shakeup to between 3,000 and 3,400 today.

In December it launched a new product, Freelancers Medical. Using the same tactics, it was able to put a 4X multiplier on its membership goals, on 50% of what it thought it would spend.

"We're going for this quick critical mass that is really pointed. It's creative and media as one thing," says Donahue.


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