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For a while now, many have bemoaned the lack of creativity in display and programmatic advertising.

The Economist bucked the trend last year, creating one of the most eye-catching and witty campaigns of 2015, and winning a Masters of Marketing award in the process.

Proximity London was behind the work, marrying provocative content and contextual targeting to help The Economist target new users. 

A problem of reader brand perception

Ahead of this ad campaign, launched in October 2014, The Economist had known for a while it had a problem attracting a key potential audience, young 'Progressives'.

For decades, the newspaper had positioned itself as a differential for white-collar workers and this had the unintended consequence of turning away some liberal potential readers.

These missing readers may not have been aware of The Economist's standing as the original campaigning voice for progressive liberalism, with a mission to fight ignorance and vested interest since its inception.

Research by The Economist revealed that, rather than the corporate elite, its readers are better defined as the "intellectually curious", with "a thirst to understand the important issues around the world". 

Targeting and provoking

The task for this campaign was to target these reluctant readers and allow them to discover The Economist for themselves.

Provoking their interest began with the rationale 'There is nothing more provocative than the truth.' 

If this provocation was successful, The Economist wanted to back it up with relevant, sample content - so new readers could experience their own 'Economist Epiphany' - defined as the moment when you rethink your position on a particular story, in response to editorial.

Using digital display, the goal was to reach 650,000 previously unseen prospects and to stimulate a change in perceptions (not just a click). 

Creative advertising (!)

The Economist used its own content to create surprising and provocative headlines, tailored to its audience and showcasing the publisher's characteristic wit.

Intellectual puzzles and enticing questions were used to draw in those who wanted to dig deeper into and understand an issue. Self-selection was built into the ads. 

All of the ads prioritised accessibility, simplicity, humour, and breadth of topics, addressing issues outside business and finance.

More than 60 executions were created, many in near real time (from our live newsroom). Economist ads led with topics like the CIA's use of torture within hours of the story breaking. 

guardian ad for the economist

telegraph ad for the economist

Understanding context

Context was as important as the creative, with The Economist wanting to demonstrate relevance and find the intellectually curious where they were already exploring relevant topics.

The idea was to link Economist content to the stories these readers were currently reading.

This involved

  • Analysing web/app usage of Economist subscribers to identify reading preferences (what content was consumed and when).
  • Matching cookie, subscriber and other data sets to build seven robust segments reflecting the sections of The Economist (Finance, Politics, Economics, Doing Good, Careers, Technology, Social Justice) and creating lookalike audiences.

Dynamic advertising built the creative in real time, matching page context and viewer profile to the Economist feed (thousands of articles, infographics, and reports).

The goal was to hit the right people in the right context - like matching an article on gay marriage with a prospect on a page discussing that topic, in real time.

economist ad on the nyt

economist article  

Intelligent taster content

Having piqued reader curiosity, The Economist not only wanted the prospect to read the related article, but to read yet more targeted content (knowing it takes four to five articles before a prospect considers subscription).

Ads pulled readers directly through to The Economist bespoke content hub. On serving the next article likely to be of most interest, the reader was nudged to register and, ultimately, subscribe. 

The Economist's decision tree delivered content in sequence, gradually learning which topics, in which order, generated the warmest prospects. 

cnbc ad for the economist

economist article 

The results  

  • The target was 650,000 new prospects from £1.2m media budget.
  • 50% of target was achieved in just nine days. 
  • In total, The Economist got over 3.6m new people to take action, sample The Economist in context, and become re-targetable contacts. 
  • A campaign ROI of over 10:1 was achieved from the initial revenue stream brought in by these prospects.
  • In the second phase of activity, number of contacts has grown to 8m people.

In the UK, 'consideration' rose by 32% and 'willingness to recommend' rose by 24% among exposed audiences vs. lookalike controls.

Brand perception metrics increased across a broad range of desirable metrics, like 'trustworthy', 'expert', 'has content worth sharing', 'progressive' & 'relevant to you'. (Equally importantly were declines in 'academic' and 'not for you'.) 

And in the US, where The Economist is less well-known, 'awareness' jumped 64%, 'consideration' rose by 22% and 'willingness to recommend' rose 10% (with similar increases across perception metrics, especially 'expert' and 'international')

If you’re interested in learning more on this topic, come to our Creative Programmatic Conference in London on March 2 2016.

It’s a brand new CPD accredited conference from Econsultancy, Marketing Week and Creative Review, where attendees will discover how brands and agencies can benefit from delivering a personalised and relevant creative programmatic experience at scale.

Ben Davis

Published 27 January, 2016 by Ben Davis @ Econsultancy

Ben Davis is a senior writer at Econsultancy. He lives in Manchester, England. You can contact him at ben.davis@econsultancy.com, follow at @herrhuld or connect via LinkedIn.

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Comments (1)

Luis Pires

Luis Pires, Director of eCommerce and eMarketing at Bosch - Siemens Home Appliances LLC

Ben, thanks for the article. This is extremely relevant in a time we continue to ask if online ads work. I believe your article shows that it does work, provided that the information is relevant to the target audience. Further, I really appreciate how 'The Economist' utilized the banner ads as a tool for a larger purpose, as smartly understood how to help the reader inch closer to their ultimate goal. Are you aware of other businesses in consumer products that may be taking a similar approach? Thank you!

10 months ago

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