Joining the list of mainstream news outlets investing in epic takeovers to shout about the value of good journalism, the Economist is testing out the most impactful way its out-of-home (OOH) advertising can give curious passers-by a taste of what membership to its intellectual club really feels like.
To underscore their commitment to keeping readers well informed in politically tumultuous times, the takeover OOH stunt is becoming a regular tactic for news titles.
Last September the Guardian flyposted its 'Hope is Power' campaign across major cities in the UK as part of its push to garner two million supporters by 2022. The following month, The Times transformed Westminster station into a vine-covered jungle to laud its political credentials.
The Economist has also been testing out ways that OOH advertising can help it drive subscriptions and has opted to dovetail stunts with key dates in the political calendar.
Last January, as MPs took a Brexit vote on an extension to Article 50, it operated a cheeky marketing stunt where it sent an ad van in circles around Westminster to epitomise the government's stance on Brexit. It said that subscriber conversion from the activity was 9% higher than elsewhere in the country.
"That went down really well," recalled Mark Cripps, The Economist's chief marketing officer. "We've been testing different ways of using OOH to garner more subscriptions. The Brexit roundabout was both brand and response, as it had a call to action on it."
Cripps says the team has also tested out OOH on New York City subway's MTA, as part of an expanded marketing programme in the US market where it attracts 50% of its readership.
The campaign used 18 interactive screens across 17 subway stations for a week and encouraged passers-by to tap the screen or send a text, to receive free Economist content. According to the magazine, the ads were seen by 42,000 commuters but getting them to interact with the ad proved tricky.
"I don't know if you've been to New York recently, but the screens were quite grubby and I don't think many people actually wanted to touch them," admitted Cripps.
Last month, coinciding with the week that the UK monumentally withdrew from the European Union, the Economist took over Old Street Roundabout and Canary Wharf, to test the integration of experiential activation with OOH using clever copywriting that begged people to interact with it.
Visible from every street leading to Old Street station, the campaign stood out with The Economist's 'white out of red' design which directed curious passers-by to ‘crack the code’ – massaging people’s intellectual egos, where Cripps said the reward is to “join the club.”
For example, one ad read: ‘Enocomsit rdeeras avhe lradaye wrkode ti uot’. Because if you’re clever enough to grasp what The Economist is alluding to in its copy, you’re clever enough to read its content.
Cripps explains that: “ads that get people to go through a process of ‘uncovering,’ where there is a reward for getting the gag and being part of the ‘in-crowd’ respect people’s intelligence and echos their curious nature."
“We let people sample the product within the advertising,” Cripps explained on the copy style. “Which is slightly different to baked beans for example. You can’t taste baked beans in an ad unless you lick the poster or something.”
It specifically took over spots that have a high penetration of business and finance people and those in the creative industry to "reach people who are interested in the world. We want to introduce and persuade people about the product," says Cripps.
Encouraged by the response, the Economist has decided to extend the campaign, which will now roll out to more sites along Ocean Aspen Way, East London.
Driving digital subscriptions
The OOH experiments are really focused on the digital subscription product as the Economist continues to compete with rivals for the pound in readers' pockets.
“Increasingly over the past two, three years, people have taken out the digital product which is good for us on many, many reasons,” explained Cripps on The Economist’s three tiers of subscription offering; print-only, digital-only or a hybrid of the two.
“It’s good for the customer because there is a high demand for digital content. But for us, it’s much better because the distribution and the production costs for digital are a low lower than the paper edition. And we get more customer insight as to their behaviour and what content they’re interested in.”
In recent years, there is a general trend of physical-first publications taking the plunge and closing their physical magazine, to continue as a digital publication. Marie Claire, Glamour and NME, are among a number of big titles that have already made the switch. But, for now, the Economist won't be one of them.
“Never say never,” Cripps said. Though he noted that while the Economist would not be against it, the magazine “has a loyal audience who love the paper product. Readers have a habit of getting it on a Friday or Saturday morning and sitting down with a cup of coffee."
"And anecdotally we hear of people carrying it around on campus as a badge of honour. They have it coming out of their bag, making sure that the masthead is that just shouts ‘look how smart I am,’" he added.