Chicago Tribune’s Blue Sky Innovation programme engages local thought leaders

Editor’s note: This is one of 17 case studies featured in INMA’s strategic report “How Media Companies Embrace the Process of Innovation,” released in November.   

The Chicago Tribune’s Blue Sky Innovation programme is a multi-platform initiative featuring content, engagement, and events aimed at Chicago’s growing mini-industry of innovation. In doing so, the company has injected itself into the concept and ethos of innovation in its market — and, as a result, created a brand rub-off effect. 

Innovation is critical to the Chicago region’s growth and health. It is a school of thought, a way of running an enterprise found at any successful business — old or new. 

And that made innovation a perfect target for the Chicago Tribune, which developed a premium tier to create fresh revenue, strengthen the brand, and engage new audiences. With this initiative, the company became a leader in the innovation conversation by shining a bright light on the city’s best thinking.

The Tribune created this product to appeal to a specific niche that represents a growing audience: 

  • Chicago’s far-flung, direct participants in the innovation world, the kind of people who sell out the local Chicago Innovation Awards.

  • Indirect participants in the innovation world: people keen to keep current on business and innovation trends because they want to improve their own business prospects. 

  • Businesses that want to provide these products and services for their employees.

Blue Sky Innovation started with research. The first step was to find out more about potential audiences and market need. To do this, it contacted a local firm, K&A Consulting, which knows the innovation world, has a record of business success with the subject and the players in Chicago, and founded the Chicago Innovation Awards. 

K&A brought crucial expertise to the qualitative research to determine the customers’ wants, needs, problems, issues — and then to develop creative responses. The company helped the Tribune create a process and method that can be used to develop other premium tiers, and the news media company expects to learn from it on an ongoing basis. 

In consultation with K&A, the Tribune developed a mission and this approach:

  • The company exploits brand, editorial mission, and civic duty to put Chicago Tribune in the centre of growth and development in Chicago. 

  • The news media company is an advocate, but not a cheerleader.

  • It convenes and leads the conversation, shining light on the best thinking, casting an unvarnished eye on projects and people. 

  • It serves individuals and businesses alike — not just subscribers — with varied pricing, creating a tier that can legitimately be considered a business expense. 

Chicago Tribune also developed a line of products and services. It started with only digital content, but has since developed print, video, and live event platforms. 

The Blue Sky Innovation programme manifested itself in three ways: 

    1. Content: It has written profiles that bring the work of Chicago’s innovators to life, explaining the latest trends and potential effects. This also includes rankings of companies, distillation of events, conferences, panels, etc. As a news company, it takes its responsibility to filter and distill all that is going on seriously. 

    2. Events: The Tribune also holds events that bring people together, providing ways to share ideas and learn from others’ innovations. For example, Mark Cuban, owner of the NBA (National Basketball Association) Dallas Mavericks, was invited to kick off the Blue Sky Innovators Series. He represents an embodiment of the spirit of Blue Sky Innovation and its position at the centre of the conversation about innovation in Chicago. He showed that talking about innovation in business can be fun and instructive at the same time.

    3. Membership clearinghouse: Further, Chicago Tribune became “the home” to learn, exchange, and explore innovation 365 days a year, through online, mobile, and print products. 

The company publicised the programme in an out-of-home marketing campaign on city buses, train platforms, and a billboard above the Tribune building. Digital ads were placed on, and print ads for the programme appeared in the newspaper. 

The Tribune considers the results of the programme promising. It landed United Airlines as a launch sponsor, which covered 2013 costs and provided a cushion going into 2014. It also built an audience from zero to more than two million pageviews at in a matter of a few months. 

Perhaps most important, the company has made a name for Blue Sky Innovation in the Chicago region’s start-up and entrepreneurship communities and is now winning audience in legacy businesses as well.

About L. Carol Christopher

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