Reader’s “Best of …” issue: Viral marketing innovations, strong ad sales

Chicago Reader newspaper redesign marketing viral campaign
More than a year out from its redesign, I now keep an eye on the Chicago Reader as, well, a reader. Things are never dull for what has been, for 40 years, one of the most influential alt-weeklies; most recently, its sale to Sun-Times Media Group caused a stir. But the summer event I look forward to each year is the Reader‘s “Best of Chicago” issue, and this year’s installment has a lot to look at, and learn from, from print to digital, from editorial to marketing to advertising. For this special edition, readers vote on their Chicago favorites across an insane variety of topics, and staff writers chime in with their own subjective and entertaining selections as well.

While the physical paper hits the streets today (at an impressive 160 pages), I noticed some interesting buzz-building online two days ago, when the @Chicago-Reader Twitter feed suddenly lit up with a barrage of snarky, funny, intriguing, WTF posts (example below), teasing the release of winners’ names. Readers of the website would learn the results the next day, with readers of the physical paper following behind. This was just the tip of an aggressive, inventive marketing strategy that utilized Instagram, Pinterest and Facebook, as well as Twitter.

I asked Editor Mara Shalhoup what was new this year: “The real difference, as far as the editorial team’s approach, has less to do with the content itself (which, as always, is playful, subversive, and focused on the underground and the off-the-beaten-path) and more to do with how that content is released. We wanted to hold back on publishing the issue as a whole, opting to ‘leak’ winners on Twitter; create a crowd-sourced, visual interpretation of Best of Chicago on Instagram; build a BoC community board on Pinterest that captures the issue’s aesthetic high points; and start conversations on Facebook about what people expect to see out of a Best of Chicago issue — and then, upon the issue’s release in print and online, exceed those expectations. Hopefully.” (Read Mara’s introduction to readers here.)

[Tuesday’s rollicking @chicago_reader Twitter feed promoting “Best of Chicago.”]

The strategy, says Marketing Director Kristen Kaza, “helps us strengthen our social capital by letting the campaign go viral. It is also a measurable tactic; we can see our social media following spike significantly with these efforts.” (A look at today’s #bestofchi Twitfeed confirms this.) And their campaign wagon was hitched to a Chicago social media star: “Instagram whiz kid Paul Octavious joined us in crafting and leading a very successful picture-sharing campaign that helped draw attention to Best Of, as well as build our following. We launched our @chicago_reader Instagram profile with a “#bestofchi” campaign, asking people to share their photos of their favorite places, people, and things in Chicago, tagging us and using #bestofchi.”

“Octavious, who has a mere 122,000+ loyal and enthusiastic followers on Instagram, helped us promote the campaign and select his favorite photos as they came in. As a result, over 560 photos were posted, and the Reader garnered 542 new followers.” The reader-submitted work came in handy and helped flesh out a hefty print issue at a time of limited photo staffing and budget. “Octavious teamed up with Art Director Paul Higgins on the concept for the Best of Chicago cover and section openers. (Ed: See their cool section-opener art at bottom of this post.) Select photos from the #bestofchi Instagram campaign were used in print, and a slideshow will be available online.”

At 160 pages, this week’s print issue is double the regular week’s page count. Advertising Director R.J. Flowers tells me he expects final sales results to meet or exceed 2011, “pretty impressive considering we have a smaller sales team and three sales reps who have been here less than one year.” So, what about the standard industry line that advertisers are fleeing the world of print? He writes: “We had many new clients (i.e. Rivers Casino, Chicago White Sox, Village Cycle, Erehwon Outfitters, etc.) that ran with us this year.”

As the consultant who advised Publisher Alison Draper on the redesign for about six months, I am frequently asked (as recently as yesterday, during an interview with Crain’s on an unrelated topic), “what’s been the upshot? Has it paid off?” Flowers confirms ongoing, positive feedback, first shared by Draper last summer: “We have received so much positive feedback from clients regarding the redesign. They love the glossy cover and pages, new layout, content, etc. For the most part, every inside cover (a premium spot partly tied to the paper’s innovative approach to music coverage) has been or is sold for the balance of the year.” So, whither the digital revolution at a paper boasting a spiffy revamped website? “Yes, digital continues to be a big push for us and clients are requesting digital options and solutions regularly, especially our music clients.” But it’s not a panicked rush to the digital world, despite what we often hear from the rest of the industry. “I have to tell you that as much as we continue to push digital, the Reader has a loyal print following and the printed product continues to deliver results.”

Draper, who exits as publisher at the end of this month when ownership changes hands (and who recently shepherded the sale to the finish line), appears to be leaving on a high note. After an intense and sometimes stressful reign, she reports: “I am very relaxed and feeling real good. Very proud of the team” who pulled this week’s efforts together.

What will the next chapter bring for the Reader, under STMG ownership? As they say, watch this space…

Related or semi-related:

Section opener for Reader’s Best of Chicago coverage, in print and web. Photo by Paul Octavious; Art Direction by Paul Higgins.

Section opener for The Reader’s “Best of Chicago” coverage, in print and web. Photo by Paul Octavious; Art Direction by Paul Higgins.

Section opener for The Reader’s “Best of Chicago” coverage, in print and web. Photo by Paul Octavious; Art Direction by Paul Higgins.

Section opener for The Reader’s “Best of Chicago” coverage, in print and web. Photo by Paul Octavious; Art Direction by Paul Higgins.


Section opener for The Reader’s “Best of Chicago” coverage, in print and web. Photo by Paul Octavious; Art Direction by Paul Higgins.


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