In recent years, Chicago is receiving long overdue recognition as a major food destination. Restaurants are outdoing each other to see who can create the most Instagram-worthy dishes. Celebrity chefs seem to be everywhere. New food-focused events are advertised daily.

Chicago Tribune’s dining section always had a loyal following in print, but our digital content was not picking up the traction it deserved. We decided to turn a small initiative, our annual Dining Awards, into a full-blown marketing campaign to experiment with our owned channels and see if we could capture some of the food-focused audience we were missing.

This initiative was divided into four phases.

Phase 1: Get to know the audience.

For Dining Awards to be successful, we needed to gain better understanding of our audience’s preferences for food and ad placement.

We began promoting dining newsletter sign-ups adjacent to Chicago Restaurant Week content in print and online. Ads featured various food images with varying visual appeal, ranging from messy to highly styled and from brightly coloured displays to more muted, natural tones.

Chicago Tribune used its Food & Dining newsletter to gather more information about the audience they wanted to target with the Dining Awards campaign.
Chicago Tribune used its Food & Dining newsletter to gather more information about the audience they wanted to target with the Dining Awards campaign.

For the digital ads, we played with varying sizes and sign-up options. In one batch, there was in-unit sign-up; in the second batch, there was a click-through to a landing page.

At the end of this phase, we had collected 4,405 new e-mails for the dining newsletter and discovered that the bright red, gooey deep-dish pizza ads were by far the most popular images. For digital, people much preferred the click-through ads as opposed to in-unit sign-ups.

Phase 2: Give the audience what they want, when they want it.

We put the key learnings from phase 1 to work for us in the second phase where we promoted our food critic’s upcoming restaurant list of Dining Awards nominees and winners. In this phase, we experimented with a teaser campaign to see if we could obtain more newsletter sign-ups by promising a first look at the best restaurants list before it was released to everyone.

While the results of this teaser were lackluster, the promotion itself was extremely successful when the list was released. Within two days, our critic’s list had received 84,000 pageviews, up from the 14,000 our reviews page had four weeks prior.

Phase 3: Reach outside owned channels.

While our owned media has extensive reach in the Chicago market, the best way to target our desired audience was to work with the restaurants our readers felt passionately about. For promoting the Reader’s Choice portion of the awards, we provided nominees with media kits they could use to encourage their patrons to vote. With 94 posts from nominated restaurants, more than a million people were reached and 30,000 votes were cast.

Phase 4: Encourage interaction.

In previous years, our editorial staff had delivered awards directly to winning restaurants. We changed that and invited Chicago Tribune readers to participate in the awards ceremony while tasting bites from past and present nominees and winners.

The event consisted of chefs, editorial staff, local influencers, and consumers who purchased tickets. All attendees were encouraged to take pictures and use the event hashtag. We had a total of 75 video shares on social, 1,418 Snapchat filter views, and more 140,000 local foodies were reached by influencers alone.

In the end, we were successful because we took the time to learn about our audience and began to encourage more engagement — something we had been missing before. And now with the successes from this, the Chicago Tribune Dining Awards will be back in 2018 as part of a large-scale food festival, which we never could have imagined when we were starting out just collecting e-mails.