Over the course of my professional marketing career, I’ve done a lot of work digging into products to find the compelling story and then working with a skilled team to tell it in an effective and engaging way.
All of my work with Capital Newspapers, which includes The Capital Times, Wisconsin State Journal and madison.com, was conceived, developed, written, designed and executed by my creative teams. This includes people like Matt Everson, Kreshnik Rushiti, Jen Casanova, Tim Lindl, Jack Rice, Nicole Riner, and many others.
Because I created and hired the entire Capital Newspapers marketing staff, I was able to bring in some of the best, most talented, strategic-thinking and hungry marketing professionals in Madison, Wisconsin. I intentionally hired from outside of our industry and took many chances on people who I knew had the talent, if not the portfolio to prove it. We worked together closely and made each other better.
My role in our creative materials ranged from brand development and messaging strategy to story development and audience research. We had many fantastic brainstorming sessions, and I navigated the executive waters on nearly every one of these pieces to get it through from idea to reality.
It was also my role to make sure all of our work was married to the ultimate messaging strategy and told the story we wanted to tell. Fortunately, I hired creatives that understood both interesting creative and strategic thinking, so this part was fairly simple.
My favorite project with Capital Newspapers was madison.com. When I arrived at the newspaper in 1997, madison.com was not much more than a domain name that someone there had the foresight to purchase.
Neither of our newspapers’ editors wanted to put any news on it for fear of cannibalization of the print product. My marketing department spent years trying to convince them otherwise – so much so that the General Manager made me the Product Manager for madison.com.
That gave me the leverage I needed to start getting more news stories on the site from both the Wisconsin State Journal and The Capital Times. Once we were able to put a decent amount of stories on the site, we decided it was time to promote it.
Meanwhile, handling both the Director of Marketing and madison.com Product Manager duties became too time consuming, so I hired a Director for the site. Together, with a huge contribution from my Senior Designer, Matt Everson (who’s design work made this what it is), we developed the site and the campaign in concert.
We were coming off a smaller campaign that focused on our aspirational goal of madison.com being the City of Madison… online. Our vision for the site was to represent all of the nuances and characteristics of the City that make it great on the site.
Our target was younger Madison residents. We had the older and more affluent residents already locked up with newspaper subscriptions, but the Internet was starting to mature at this point, and the early adopters in Madison were largely under 40 years old. They were also living somewhat single lifestyles with a lot of disposable income spent on eating and going out.
With the simple idea of rallying the City to greatness, and our target identified, the creative team decided to build on the premise that madison.com was going to serve as community leader. But it was going to do more than that. Like in times of war or national struggle, madison.com was going to use a propaganda approach to rally the citizens. madison.com was going to being the City’s number one cheerleader. We were going to raise the bar and insist that the City reach all of its potential.
It was from that idea that the madison.com campaign was born. The billboard above was one of the first iterations of the campaign, and it contained all of the elements that would be used in most materials going forward.
The campaign was based in red because the University of Wisconsin-Madison Badgers team color is red, and you can’t walk two blocks in the City without seeing that red.
The star/circle was used because it is the map symbol for a state capital, and Madison is obviously the capital of Wisconsin.
Consistent with classic propaganda, we wanted strong and dynamic images of the people depicted in the ad, so we used black and white images with heavy contour lines and worm’s eye views to show leadership.
Each piece also featured a location from the City. But we didn’t want to use obvious or overused landmarks. We chose instead to show some of the backstreets and lesser known areas. It was symbolic of our desire to raise the prominence of Madison’s every neighborhood.
Finally, a bold font was used to once again depict strength and unity. Our first billboard (above) featured only one word of copy – “Forward!” – which is also the state slogan.
Along with that billboard, we also ran this one, which supported not only the site, but our employment classifieds on madison.com:
Again, with dynamic images, this board stood out among all other billboards and campaigns and was regarded by many local marketing professionals as the best campaign to hit Madison in years.
People all over were talking about it. The newspaper’s Customer Service department was getting tons of calls about it. Some in favor… some not.
I distinctly remember reading one email from an older subscriber who asked the question: “Do you know how many millions of people died in the name of Communism?” People decided that the red, along with the circle/star and style of the campaign, made it look like a pro-Communist campaign. This was actually also in character, as Madison is often referred to as the Berkeley of the Midwest.
In general, our older audience hated it (including many of our executive team), while younger people loved it. In fact, we were getting frequent requests to make it available as a poster.
It was the poster request that let us know we were on to something. So the designer went about evolving the campaign – first with underground pole signs:
Then, as complaints about the use of red started resonating loudly with our Publishers, we used the holidays as an excuse to evolve the color scheme:
You may have noticed that the star/circle began to be a symbol unto itself. We decided to run with this by creating star/circle magnets that began appearing all over town. There were also shirts that people were excited to wear, as well. That shirt became a symbol of the next wave of billboards:
With the madison.com campaign, we had accomplished something that no one in the history of our newspaper company had been able to do – we made one of their products “cool.”
And this was before our final site redesign, by Kreshnik Rushiti. Unfortunately, I don’t have a before/after picture. But this is what his design looked like:
While I certainly had input into this, I think one of the reasons our creative teams always did so well was because I left it to them to use their abilities and judgment to create what was needed to satisfy the requirements of the job. I always trusted my team to do what was right, and then I would make them defend it – for two reasons, 1) I wanted to know they’d thought it through, and 2) I wanted to be able to effectively make the case to upper management.
The visuals of the campaign were very polarizing, which we liked. People had strong feelings about it. They either loved it or hated it. We liked that because those who loved it felt like the site wasn’t for everyone – just for them. So we took these strong feelings and developed two very different, but two effective directions.
First, we created the madison.com concert series. This was an altrustic way for madison.com to take a leading role in improving Madison’s music scene. The concept was fairly straightforward.
We would partner with local bands to support their shows. So, if a local band was playing out on Friday, we’d have them announce to their fan base that madison.com was paying the cover charge and admission would be free. Word would get out through the list, and from people showing up at the door.
When someone came to the door expecting to pay, they’d be greeted by a madison.com rep who would tell them the cover charge is on us, and we just want them to come in and enjoy our local music. Those people would then call their friends, and we’d pack the place.
The best part about it was that we appeared to be very altruistic and “about the music” because we never announced anywhere that we did this. Word of mouth took care of that for us so that people would start wondering where we’d appear next. And it was great for our relations with the bands, who started looking at us as a credible source for music and show information.
The Community Pages was the other direction we took madison.com. The goal of this was to create a free place for all local community groups, clubs and non-profits to have their own web presence in a place that aggregated all of Madison’s interests, hobbies and causes in one place.
Because site space was going to be free and open to all Madison groups, we sought out a sponsorship from a Madison institution, and Madison Gas & Electric wanted in. They paid $150,000 for the first year to sponsor the site.
We took some of that money and hired a community moderator who’s role would be to recruit groups and conduct training sessions on how to set up the free pages. (As a matter of trivia, this site actually pre-dated Facebook… a fact that only occurred to be recently.)
After the first year, we had accumulated 1,500 local groups and clubs. This put madison.com at the top of mind for a lot of people and proved to them that the site was truly invested in the City and working to make it great.
The madison.com campaign elements won many advertising awards, including many ADDY’s. It also won two awards from the International Newspaper Association of America – including their innovation award for the Community Pages site.
But more importantly, we made madison.com the number one newspaper site in the United States and a significant source of revenue for Capital Newspapers.
When we started, 6% of Dane County adults visited madison.com every month, according to The Media Audit. After these campaigns had run their course, 42% of Dane County adults were visiting madison.com every month. This was a greater percentage of our core geographic area than any other newspaper website was reaching in theirs. The Washington Post was second with 41%.
We also took madison.com from being 0% of Capital Newspapers revenue to 9% when I left the company, going from not even on the list to the third largest revenue contributing product in the company.
It was that success that made us one of the most well-known marketing departments in the newspaper industry. I received calls quite literally from all over the world.
It was a fun campaign, and my favorite part was being involved from beginning – product development stage – to end – final product and supporting campaign.
– My name is Jon Friesch, and I’m proud to be associated with this campaign.