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Oct. 31, 2023, 2:27 p.m.
Audience & Social

A Philly Inquirer ad campaign leans into local pride and inside jokes to win over millennials

“Unsubscribe from antiquated notions about Philly and antiquated notions about the news, and subscribe to a more authentic Philly today and tomorrow and what your news can be — multi-platform.”

If you aren’t from Philly, the advertisement below might go over your head.

But if you are a Philadelphian, and/or follow Philly sports, you probably know “attaboy” refers to a mocking comment Atlanta Braves shortstop Orlando Arcia made about the Phillies’ Bryce Harper after a game-ending double-off a few weeks ago. You probably also know that the Phillies had the last laugh — in Game 3, the team came back with a vengeance, with Harper homering twice — and ultimately made it to the National League Championship Series by winning Game 4 the following night.1 They claimed the “attaboy” comment as their own, turning the dig into a rallying cry.

Timely inside jokes that lean into local pride define The Philadelphia Inquirer’s three-year, seven-figure advertising campaign launched in early October. The campaign is the latest innovation in the publication’s pursuit of digital growth; the 194-year-old Inquirer redesigned its print product and website about a year ago, and has recently launched digital-first products including a sports hub, a riff on Wordle called Birdle, and live blogs focused on breaking news.

“We felt like this was the moment to invite people into our house, so to speak, and to really experience the breadth of product offering that we have…as a brand,” chief executive officer Lisa Hughes told me. With its snappy campaign and focus on digital products, the publication is pushing away from a focus on print that, as recently as two years ago, held back its coverage and appeal to diverse audiences.

The ads lean into the city’s quirky culture across sports, food, and the arts, and evolve quickly to respond to news events so the campaign “can really live and breathe and be a real thing” with the goal of “driv[ing] and grow[ing] audience” and, in particular, charming and inspiring millennials into engaging. The campaign is “a love letter to Philly,” Hughes said. She also sees the campaign as an investment in the city since the Inquirer is, for instance, buying ads in the Center City District and on SEPTA, its public transportation system.

The nonprofit Lenfest Institute for Journalism, which owns the Inquirer (though the publication remains an editorially independent, for-profit public benefit corporation), is supporting the campaign by “investing just over $1 million…a portion for creative development and the lion’s share for media placements, amplification, and related digital marketing,” Jim Friedlich, chief executive officer of the Lenfest Institute, told me in an email.

Lenfest “has very much been encouraging us to think about telling our story in a much more direct way like this,” Hughes said, “and so we’re fortunate to be able to have the money set aside to do this properly.” The institute is contributing some, but not all, of the funding for the campaign, she added, with other funding coming out of the Inquirer’s consumer marketing budget.

Beyond this campaign, the Lenfest Institute provides other grant support to the Inquirer. “Lenfest has invested meaningfully over the past six years in a broad array of initiatives at The Philadelphia Inquirer — a stronger investigative news team, new community journalism resources, improved product experience, and digital subscription marketing — each key to a sustainable digital business model for a great American news organization,” Friedlich told me. “The Lenfest team feels that the time is right to invest in brand marketing because the quality of both the Inquirer’s journalism and digital product offerings are such that when readers come into the house as trial users, they tend to stay for dinner as paying subscribers.” Now, the goal is to entice more new readers to the house, he added.

To that end, the campaign initially focuses on “top-of-funnel brand awareness — brand consideration, brand reconsideration,” Hughes said.

The Inquirer worked with the Harris Poll to research its addressable market, and within that, the “movable middle” — “the folks who are most likely to be interested in our content, believe in paying for news and content, and that we might not be speaking to, or [who] might not be aware of everything that we’re doing?”

They found that, “broadly speaking, that cohort are millennials,” Hughes said, and the company nicknamed two target sub-cohorts “community lovers” and “passionate spenders.” While there’s some overlap between the groups, the passionate spenders are “a little bit more urban,” Hughes said, and value being informed on current events in addition to caring about food and sports. Community lovers, on the other hand, tend to be more suburban, Hughes said, and (naturally) “[care] deeply about their community and local journalism” and have more of an arts and culture focus. Those interests, Hughes explained, translated to an emphasis on sports, the arts, and food across the ad campaign — areas where the publication can fill “the gap in their news diet” by covering them through a fiercely local lens.

The Inquirer’s campaign, which it produced working with the Philly-based ad firm Red Tettemer O’Connell + Partners, taps into the city’s legendary (or notorious) sports culture — the publication has permission to use all five of its sports teams’ logos as part of this campaign. But the campaign also includes jokes about food, the arts, and culture — for instance, when two Penn academics won Nobel prizes this month, the Inquirer pushed out a tailored ad.

On the arts front, the famous Robert Indiana “LOVE” statue is acknowledged in another ad. The Inquirer may partner with local artists in this campaign within the next year, Hughes said — for instance, collaborating with mural artists or sculptors — extending the campaign to the sides of buildings, or “doing giant I [sculptures] that are tied to cultural moments,” like a giant I made of flowers to honor Philly’s annual flower show. The campaign does not currently have an audio component, but the publication may experiment with that later.

Some of the advertisements “riff off” Philly’s rivalry with New York City. In sports, New York is “kind of our favorite adversary,” Hughes said; there’s a similar rivalry related to food, she added. When it comes to news, though, the Inquirer is not trying to compete with The New York Times; “I think it’s very normal for a news junkie to be reading a national player as well as their local player,” Hughes said. “We want to be the ‘and.’”

In the ad formats, “the wit is, of course, the line and the tension between unsubscribe and subscribe — we’re turning what we’re asking you to do on its head. And that’s the flag of disruption that’s getting someone to say, ‘Wait, what are you telling me to do?’” Hughes said. “It’s obviously: Unsubscribe from antiquated notions about Philly and antiquated notions about the news, and subscribe to a more authentic Philly today and tomorrow and what your news can be — multi-platform.”

So far, some people have sent in their own “unsubscribe from; subscribe to” couplets, Hughes said. “People are really having fun with it.”

While in the early stages of this campaign, the Inquirer is focused on top of funnel engagement, the campaign’s goals and tactics will evolve over time to focus on building habits and engagement.

As part of the Inquirer’s five-year plan, Hughes said, the publication aims to hit 90,000 digital subscribers by the end of this year — as of the end of October, the Inquirer is at 85,000 digital subscribers, and “on track” to meet its goal. (Digital-only subscriptions cost about $16 every four weeks, and the Inquirer currently offers a $1 for four months deal to entice new readers, among other discounted deals.) Excluding philanthropic contributions, which make up about 6% of the Inquirer’s revenue, 72% of the Inquirer’s revenue is consumer revenue and 28% comes from advertising, according to Axios. “We are a consumer revenue-driven business so digital [subscription] revenue is our growth engine and path to a sustainable future,” Hughes told me in a follow-up email. Print subscription revenue “is still a multiple of digital [subscription] revenue” for the Inquirer, which Hughes said “will change over time as digital [subscription] volume and revenue continue to climb.”

“We have a lot of things we’re working on to drive audience growth, which sort of drives the whole engine,” Hughes said. “That’s what we need to drive more subscriptions…So we want to continue to get more people to come and be fans and subscribe to the Inquirer, ultimately.”

Photo of the Philadelphia Eagles mascot by Casey Murphy on Unsplash. All advertisement photos courtesy of The Philadelphia Inquirer.

  1. Caveat — having the last laugh is relative: The Phillies, alas, did not make it to the World Series, losing in Game 7 to the Arizona Diamondbacks. ↩︎
Sophie Culpepper is a staff writer at Nieman Lab. You can reach her via email (sophie@niemanlab.org) or Twitter DM (@s_peppered).
POSTED     Oct. 31, 2023, 2:27 p.m.
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