Stavanger Aftenblad’s comment campaign goes viral in effort to reduce churn

By Siri Holstad Johannessen

Schibsted Norway

Oslo, Norway


By Tor Anders Voldsund

Stavanger Aftenblad, Schibsted Media Group


It’s easy to sell something: Just lower the price enough. But this price race to the bottom is not a sustainable or comfortable place to linger.

What is much more challenging, but more rewarding, is to drive sales through long-term brand building. It is by creating sustainable income that you prove yourself as a business. This month’s sales figures are dependent on how you built the brand over the last year. Sure, there is pressure about delivery on short-term sale goals, but you have to invest for long-term brand building.

The newspaper Stavanger Aftenblad is a 126-year-old brand, so by nature we are in for the long run.

Stavanger Aftenblad created a comment campaign featuring a comedian playing several different personas.
Stavanger Aftenblad created a comment campaign featuring a comedian playing several different personas.

Stavanger Aftenblad is the leading regional newspaper in southwest Norway. It is the No. 1 news destination in this part of the country and sets the agenda and sparks debate. It is owned by Schibsted Media Group. Our business model is subscriptions and advertising, deployed online with a hybrid freemium metered paywall. It has 60,000 subscribers and approximately 120,000 daily visitors its Web site. 

At Stavanger Aftenblad, we use the research and theoretical foundation of Romaniuk and Sharp’s “How Brands Grow” (Oxford University Press Australia) as a guideline for how we do marketing. They claim, and thoroughly document, that for marketing, there are several “gravity laws” we have to understand and respect. An obvious one is the need for building mental and physical availability for your brand.

Throughout the year, we run several campaigns in our market to recruit new subscribers, and we have enjoyed steady growth over the past few years. But, as several other media companies experience, with growth comes churn. We manage to get more people through the gate, but how do we get them to stay?

To tackle this problem we try several tactics, such as better onboarding and smarter retention

In addition to constantly working on improving our anti-churn tactics, we wanted to try a new action to address the rising churn. We decided to run a retention campaign where the target group was our existing customers. The strategy for the campaign was to emphasise a feature from our product that our readers like, but not all of them use.

The theory is simple: The more you use a product, the more likely you stay as a paying customer. We boldly chose to develop a campaign about the comments field, the field where readers can express their views about the content in the article. A bit odd choice of topic, you may think. As we know, this battlefield of antagonism and mostly angry men are not for the faint of heart. But the comments also contain really good discussions, many with humour and wit that our subscribers enjoy reading.

We also had a second agenda for why we chose this topic: to encourage new voices across gender and ages to participate and not feel intimidated to be a part of the discussions.

Who are our customers, what do they want in life, why do they act as they do? Cultural insight is critical to building authentic brands, and that is why we can’t lose the outside perspective. Written comments provide meaning coming from real people in our local society. These perspectives are a goldmine for tapping into what topics engage people. In the comments field, we found a source for developing emotionally engaging stories.

Together with our creative agency, we decided to do a re-acting of the actual moment when people wrote the comments. We selected local topics that were well-known and much-debated. It took a long time to sift through hundreds of comments on the Web site, but the work paid off. We found discussions and one-liners that were really good and inspiring! These selected comments were then used as a base to create short film scripts.

We created several archetypes of men and women and used these personas in the short films to debate and deliver the lines from the comments field. All the archetypes were played by the same male comedian actor. Arguments were edited together for opposing viewpoints about the topics. As you can see from the screenshots from the films, the archetypes were heavily saturated, so it should be obvious that this story is not “real” but a characterisation of the public debate — for fun and thoughts.

As we all know, humour can be a double-edged sword. We had to create several iterations of the edit to get it right. It had to be clear that we were not making fun of our readers, but rather laughing together with our readers.

The idea and final campaign was approved by the editor-in-chief of Stavanger Aftenblad, Lars Helle. He stated, “If you manage to make this work, then we have never seen anything like this coming from us.” We had the green light, but we still took a risk when we chose the concept, nad we were all a bit nervous when we published the first films.

(Disclaimer: Unfortunately, for all of you who don’t understand Norwegian, it makes no sense at all trying to explain the humour. You have to be one of the locals to get it.)

From the beginning, the films were planned and made to fit for Facebook. The play length, framing of shots and editing were all customised for mobile for the best experience. For publishing, we targeted several selected groups on the platform and used our reach in the region. Luckily, we didn't have to wait long before we knew that it worked. The likes, comments, and shares started flying in.

We had never seen numbers like this previously on our Facebook posts. The campaign started to spread beyond our region and into the rest of Norway. Most importantly, people enjoyed the stories and recognised the archetypes. They tagged other people to watch the films. We had created a little viral hit. As one stated on Facebook: “OMG, I am dying. This is in fact worth my whole subscription on SA (Stavanger Aftenblad) alone.”

We have made two seasons of the commentary campaign. Together, the seasons have delivered 617,000 video views, 6,200 likes, and 817 comments on Facebook. Not bad for a low budget campaign for a regional newspaper in a small country like Norway.

The campaign was a viral success. It definitely created engagement and made our brand very visible, but did it have an effect on the churn? It is very hard to measure the long-term effect and the picture is not clear, but we do see a positive change in churn for our long-time subscribers. We also found the campaign created a boost in general brand awareness and liking, monitored by YouGov BrandIndex.

An extra small bonus is that the campaign has been awarded several prices in national and regional advertising competitions.

Tor Anders believes the most important task as chief marketing officer of Stavanger Aftenblad is to have a clear strategic vision for the brand. Secondly, it’s important to be able to write the best briefs for the agency partners so they can deliver. Briefs should stress the importance of how ideas will strengthen the brand over time.

Tor Anders states: “We all have huge amount of available data about our customers. But how to turn this into true and new insight? My understanding is that brand building can only be effective if clear strategic direction is combined with human understanding and unique ideas. This is the part of our job that demands hard work and there are no easy answers.

“Modern tech and data give us knowledge, efficiencies, and audiences, but creativity is the real competitive value. Creative advertising differentiates your brand because everyone has the tech, but not everyone has brilliant ideas. And, if you dare, try using humour and put a smile on someone’s face.”

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