local media insider
Case Study

San Francisco Chronicle's content marketing program picks up key accounts

Here's how SFGate.com built a successful program

Alisa Cromer
Please click to enlarge. Sponsorships of curated channels, such as this one, run on the home page main and secondary channels. The sponsor gets 100% share of voice and takes advantage of huge SFgate.com traffic. This form of native advertising sold first.

Media: San Francisco Chronicle

Website: SFGate.com 

Owner: Hearst Communications, Inc. 

Initiative: Sales of content marketing

Key executive: John Miller, Executive Director, Client Strategy

Challenge: The San Francisco Chronicle executive team saw new content marketing initiatives created by Buzzfeed and other companies and decided add content marketing to it agency services. Also fueling the decision was its ownership of two web sites, SFChronicle, whose news is password protected, and SFGate.com, a free site that includes both news and commercial services. SFGate is now evolving into popular commercial categories with strong SEO value, and was an ideal vehicle for content marketing programs. 

Strategy: To lead their three year-old  agency, originally called 901, into content marketing, Hearst tapped John Miller. Miller, who was tasked both with running the agency and developing new content products. Miller's background includes content marketing at the national magazine level, as well as roles as editor and art director at the Wall Street Journal, Esquire, Vanity Fair and MSNBC. 

"My pitch to (San Francisco Chronicle) was that they already have a massive content engine and this is what brands are looking for. It makes sense to marry the two."

He also had a pre-existing relationship with the company, having worked on a 2008 redesign. His  editorial strengths both helped him gain respect in the newsroom, and draw from a breadth of writing contacts developed over his career.  

"I was brought in to straddle advertising and editorial, and to use editorial to effectively tell brand stories and put them in good positions along the purchasing path. 

Eventually, Miller dissolved the agency and reports to the director of advertising, with lateral carte blanche to work with editorial to produce on content channels and other initiatives. 

"I'm not a big fan of teaching people new brands, SFGate and SFChronicle are already two brands, I thought introducing another one didn't make sense. 

Another change in mid-2013 is that the even with a paywall, some of the news is still reposted to the free sfgate.com and the separation  between SFChronicle.com reporters and SFGate.com reporters who write branded content is no longer as clear.

Content strategy

Native advertising in the broadest sense means any commercial content that supports brand sales. The term often refers to advertorials, but SFGate.com's strategy is to create content that is not "about the advertiser."  While either written or curated  "fit the brand," they are designed to be highly useful to readers. The team sells three kinds of content marketing: 

1. Branded content on sfgate.com
Branded content channels are written on topics that attract the audience the brand is interested in reaching.  These channels are not promoted in the main home navigation. The power of the content is in attracting the right audience through SEO and social shares. 

For, example,  the first big branded content customer, BigFive sporting goods, runs a branded channel on family sports, viewable at sf.gate.com/sponsored/familysports.

The channel and content is specifically developed around BigFive's marketing targets; BigFive sells products for beginners in sports; ie it markets itself as a place that families go to buy a first tennis racket, but not neccesarily where a tennis pro would shop.

The new "family sports" channel includes posting article a day on topics such as how to buy your son a baseball glove, or how to throw a football. BigFive gets 100% share of voice on the channel, including the top leader board, sponsor title bar, and right hand panel:

It uses these positions to promote j10% off "back to school" coupons and other store promotions, by linking to the landing page on its site:

On Big Five's own site the content is re-used, but re-edited so that headlines, photos and content is slighly different, and provides a significant boost in SEO. 

2. Sponsored content packages
In addition to creating new content for brands, SFGate also aggregates and curates content channels using articles hand-curated from all Hearst properties, including the magazines. These channels are built around popular subjects such as living, food and sports,  promoted in the top and secondary home page navigation bars. Secondary navigation include more sponsorable channels such as Weddings, Weekend Warrior and Fashion (sold to Bloomingdales).

An example of a sponsorship of weddings, on the secondary navigation bar under the "living" channel is show top right, click to enlarge.

For example, a large sponsorship of the food channel was sold to Nespresso, a new coffee shop that needed  to introduce its high end brand to a large and crowded marketplace.

Nespresso's two banner ads at the top and side panels of  the Food channel home page, simultaneously flash three messages, "The pursuit of excellence comes to San Francisco Bay," "Two of America's finest cups," and ending wtih "The official coffee of the 34th America's Cup" with a "Discover more" button:

Unlike branded content, curated content sponsors also benefit from sfgate.com's huge reach - 19 million people a month - and use of the home page promotional spots. Key to selling this kind of marketing is big traffic and quality content. However, this content is typically not repurposed on the client's own web site. 

At sfgate.com, there is no distinction between paid and unpaid content, so editors are considered "producers" and work on both. 

"They have an amazing grasp on their vertical expertise," Miller said. For example, he had an advertiser interested in a vertical on pets, and the producers was able to "find ten stories posted in a couple of hours, and create the channel in two days."

Producers re-post ten new items twice a week, wtih their level of knowledge, posting only takes "in a few minutes."  Hand curation keeps the quality high and can be selected to fit the client. For example, Miller said, in the Weekend Warrior section, they would not run a story on someone killed mountain hiking. 

3. Native advertising 
The content team is just starting to pitch native advertising, or page takeovers that include wall-paper and other more visual ways to present advertisers beyond standard banner positions. 

So far, Macys has bought native ads on style pages and real estate to State Farm.  Six more major proposals are out.

Plans include ways to link to native advertising pages from the super high traffic home page. One idea they are exploring is to  create a person of the day on the home page,  and that can be buzzfeed style sponsored by a brand. "When you click on the person, you go to article page taken over by  display advertising." 

All three types of content marketing incorporate social media posting strategies which become part of the overall package.


Sponsorships for high traffic curated channels about $5000 a month. While branded content created for the merchant can run $10,000 to $12,000. 

This is where Miller's long term contacts with freelancers, built over a 25 year career in magazines, is helpful.  For example, when Jack Danielle's wants to own a channel on the "history of rock in San Francisco, "I know a Rolling Stone's write who can do it in their sleep. When not use them?" 

To create a channel which may included a number of different linked stores, over several months, Miller pays the writer a flat rate.


• The first month of sales, Miller projected five major sales and sold ten in the first nine days. 

• Most of the first batch of large sales have been for the curated channel sponsorships

• Branded and native advertising initiatives have proposals out to larger clients at the time of this case study, Miller expects these categories to be equally strong. 

• LocalMediaInsider estimates this initiative with five to ten major sales running monthly will bill $20,000  to $60,000 a month, with the potential to double in the second year. 

• Editors of SFgate.com do not push back against writing commercial content, and work well with Miller to come up with new ideas to create dngaging branded and curated content channels.

"Newspaper have gone through a hard time. I think people get that they need to be innovative...There real energy for everyone to pull together. "One of the channels we are doing is wine, and an editor will say, "do you mind if I just take it on and get it to where is tneeds to be' and they take it on."

Our take

Content marketing is a natural fit for news media though not without detractors. A key to the SFGate.com model is not neccesarily separation of reporters, but the separation into two sites, one of which is designated as the commercial site. Other practitioners of this model separate reporting staffs, or sell content only on the client's site, via a third party such as Search Influence, or in a separately branded channel, such as Forbes and other magazines. So there are a variety of options to consider. 

Many thanks to John Miller, Executive Director, Client Strategy at the San Francisco Chronicle for sharing his expertise with us. 

Alisa Cromer

The author, Alisa Cromer is publisher of a variety of online media, including LocalMediaInsider and  MediaExecsTech,  developed while on a fellowship with the Reynolds Journalism Institute and which has evolved into a leading marketing company for media technology start-ups. In 2017 she founded Worldstir.com, an online magazine,  to showcases perspectives from around the  world on new topic each month, translated from and to the top five languages in the world.

sfchronicle, 901, sfgate.com, john miller, BuzzFeed, native advertising, content marketing