Hearst rolls out 30-day brand awareness campaign during lockdown

By Dawn McMullan


Dallas, Texas, United States

Toward the end of 2019, Hearst Newspaper brand the Houston Chronicle was planning a rebranding using the phrase, “We are Houston.” As the concept prepped to roll out among other titles, the United States started going on lockdown in response to the COVID pandemic.

Suddenly, the words had greater meaning.

INMA caught up with Kelli Dakake, director of audience at Hearst, in May to hear more about the initiative and how it pivoted during the coronavirus.

The campaign rolled out in five Hearst markets, beginning the same: “We are in this together. We are in this for you.” From there, the last line varied market to market:

In San Francisco, “We are San Francisco.”

In Houston, “We are Houston.”

In Albany, “We are on a mission for the truth.”

In San Antonio: “We are the Express-News.”

In Connecticut, “We are going beyond the headlines.”

Dakake shared more details about how the campaigns rolled out, how coronavirus has shaped content and paywall strategies, and the campaigns’ early results: 

INMA: What is the basic concept of the 30 days of brand awareness across the Hearst markets? 

Dakake: Across all markets, it started out really as just a TV ad brand concept and then grew to other channels. It’s all about we are in this together, we are here for you. We are Houston. We are San Francisco. We are the Express-News. They all came up with a different tagline. The TV ads really focus on everything going on right now with coronavirus and then how we’re out in the field reporting and getting the news and the coverage that you can count on.

The campaign transformed from a TV branding campaign to much more during the early days of the pandemic lockdown.
The campaign transformed from a TV branding campaign to much more during the early days of the pandemic lockdown.

INMA: What are the goals of the campaign? 

Dakake: First, it was getting the brand and subsequent acquisition campaign launched, and then how do we pivot to the retention side and what we are going to do from that standpoint? We sent letters and e-mails from publishers to our most loyal subscribers, talking about what we’re doing and thanking them for their loyalty.  

INMA: So the actual campaign was designed at the corporate level, then tweaked for each market, correct? 

Dakake: Yes. It really actually started out in 2019. We were starting to go market by market, starting with San Francisco over the summer. Then we just launched Houston in February/March and it just happened to be called “We are Houston.” 

We really looked at Houston and expanded that to see how could that feeling and tone work in the other markets — to be more relevant to the time we are now. We used “We are Houston” as a starting point. It was just going to be a 30-day TV brand awareness campaign, and then with everything going on, we thought maybe we should do more with it. The end result was a campaign running for about six weeks. 

From a brand awareness perspective, we’ll have things out in social, YouTube, organic pushes from newsrooms and marketing sides. We tailor that and we’ll be launching more of an acquisition-focused campaign around the brand with direct mail pieces, things on the site, e-mail, and then more paid social acquisition. The TV ads are a combination brand awareness and acquisition campaign. 

INMA: How are your numbers looking during the coronavirus crisis? 

Dakake: From a subscription standpoint, we’ve really increased. Overall at Hearst we’ve essentially doubled week over week with digital subscriptions. We had pretty aggressive goals for 2020 already, and so we are on track if not already starting to exceed those. Obviously we know that it will taper off eventually, and we’re actually seeing that start already. Our March numbers were record breaking in regards to digital subscription numbers. Our focus now is more retention and what do we need to do differently right now to ensure that these new readers are staying engaged and not leaving. 

The campaign highlighted coronavirus content carried by Hearst titles.
The campaign highlighted coronavirus content carried by Hearst titles.

INMA: What COVID-19 content strategies have your markets been working on? And how did you handle the content with your paywall strategy? 

Dakake: All of our markets have launched one of two things, either a stand-alone coronavirus type newsletter or we’ve altered our daily newsletter to have a coronavirus section. The big question was how much of the content, if any, do we put in front of the wall?

For us, three of our markets utilised two-site strategies, one free and one paid [premium]. How much of the content do we put on the free site vs. the premium site? We made a pretty early decision to not change anything with our meter or paywall strategy. We made the decision to have some of our articles, a very small amount, be in front of the wall. Two or three articles, what you need to know, live updates, those are free. 

Everything else follows normal meter paywall strategy. We made a conscious effort to really put all the content on our premium sites and then just have the quick, breaking news on our free sites, and then send them over to our premium sites. 

Our markets with one-site strategy, Times Union and our Connecticut publications, were a little more of a balance. They had a little more that was in front of the wall just to help with that balance. In all markets, we’ve seen a big bump in subscriptions. 

It’s our civic duty to provide this information, but what a lot of people go back to: Would the baker give the bread away for free? If we only had print, we would never give single-copy away for free. The most important, most critical stories, we put out there for free, maybe just for the first 24 hours.

The campaign helped keep new audiences engaged after the initial COVID bump in subscriptions.
The campaign helped keep new audiences engaged after the initial COVID bump in subscriptions.

INMA: How did the brand awareness rollout go?

Dakake: The print ads all launched. We supplemented with a complimentary acquisition campaign. The TV ads ran in markets for four weeks except for Connecticut, which ran for six weeks. Most of them came down the first week in May. 

We have three buckets we’re tracking: TV spots and impressions; digital views of video, both organic pushes as well as paid; then starts coming through the acquisition campaign. 

Through all of that, especially with the views of the video and TV, we’re really seeing how it has an impact on our visits to the site. The hard part with this is with the coronavirus content, all our sites [visits] are up, so it’s difficult to see direct attribution.

At least in the first week, Connecticut was the only one that ran video over OTT. And that specific week, as we’re starting to come down on the news cycle with coronavirus, Connecticut was not only the only one that didn’t come down, but had a greater increase. So we made the assumption OTT is helping the Connecticut audience growth as we’ve seen a 32% increase in premium visits. The week prior, people were starting to see visits go down, then they took a jump up. 

As the coronavirus news cycle starts to decline, we’re seeing the same trend in digital starts. They’re still double from January/February weekly start numbers but down 32% compared to the last four weeks. Before we were triple, quadruple. We’re down from that, but we’re still double what we were in January. 

About Dawn McMullan

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