New York Times takes next step to increase digital subscribers by launching a new ad campaign

Since The New York Times launched its metered paywall last March, about 472,000 people have become digital subscribers. The Times saw a 73 percent gain in circulation over the past six months, according to the latest Audit Bureau of Circulations report. This was largely due to digital gains; the Times' daily digital subscribers actually exceeded its daily print subscribers.

My colleague Rick Edmonds said recently that “you can bet the farm” the Times won’t get that many digital subscribers in the next year, and that “ten to 15 percent more would be a solid performance."

But the Times will do what it can to continue increasing that number. Last week, it launched a new online advertising campaign aimed at getting more people to pay for its online content. The campaign features short ads that highlight Times content in four areas: politics, invention, creativity and relationships. Though the Times has advertised on TV before, this is the first time the company has used online videos to advertise digital subscriptions.

Selling “an experience” to readers

The videos will appear on some sites that the Times has already been advertising on -- New York Magazine, Gizmodo, Bloomberg, Salon and Comedy Central, among others.

Linda Zebian, corporate communications manager, said the Times chose to advertise on sites that align with the four topics of the videos, and said certain sites are highlighting specific videos. The Shopping page of New York Magazine, for instance, features the relationships and creativity videos, while Gizmodo features the invention video. Other sites, like Gothamist, are rotating through an equal mix of all four videos.

The campaign is smart not just because it features well-scripted videos, but because the slogan that goes along with each video addresses a common argument readers make against paywalls: Why pay for content when I can get it elsewhere for free?

The slogan explains why: “Experience the difference between the news. And The New York Times.” This digital slogan differentiates "all the news that’s fit to print" from "the experience of news" by highlighting articles, photos, videos, interactives and illustrations.

Related: Click here to view an X-ray reading of the New York Times ad, with a deconstruction of the writing.

“In the videos, we’re not lecturing to you, we’re opening a lens,” said Nat Whitten, who wrote the script for the ads. “We’re attempting to get the audience interested to the point where they want to become more involved.”

Showing the value of Times content through strong writing, visuals

Whitten, who has written other scripts for Times ads, began his creative process by meeting with the marketing team and brainstorming topics they wanted to feature in the videos.

“We really wanted to speak to people more in depth about the value of The New York Times and the richness of the content in it,” said Laura Langdon, the Times’ vice president of marketing. “We believe in showing our work as a way of telling people what they can experience -- and exposing them to things they didn't know about.”

Whitten then wrote a few scripts with two goals in mind: he wanted to both capture the insight and understanding the Times brings to the topics and elicit the emotion that a reader experiences when they become immersed in an area of interest.

“Then, knowing strategically that we wanted these to be demonstration pieces that were driven solely by content from The Times,” Whitten said, “I began pulling interesting stories and visuals for the subject at hand, which helped further inform the narrative.”

While drafting his work, he used “mood boards” -- simple collages that showcased the Times content he wanted to feature and the accompanying script.

“I use mood boards to present work that have words and visuals, as words usually never live by themselves in our field of endeavor,” Whitten said by phone. “Really it's just a help when you present ideas for film and television; better than simply words on a page.”

The Times hired a professional voice-over artist and worked with a company called Pull, which created original music for each of the ads. The music adds energy to the videos without distracting from the overall message.

Because each video is only a minute long, Whitten didn’t have much time to communicate a message. Nevertheless, he found ways to make each beat effective.

In all of the videos, he uses pronouns such as “we” and “our,” which suggest inclusiveness. He uses strong verbs such as “explore” “attract” and “connect,” and he frequently makes use of the rule of three.

Each video ends with three words that highlight the topic. The politics video ends with “investigation, explanation, insight,” while the creativity one ends with “Imagination, illumination, originality.”

Whitten didn’t think about the rule of three while writing the scripts. “When you're writing short-form stuff, in almost any field, the rule of three is ingrained in you,” he said. “That's probably just part of my methodology at this point.”

Drawing from personal experience as a Times reader

While writing the scripts, Whitten thought about his own experiences as a New York Times reader. The Times, he said, has influenced his thinking since he was 8, when he started reading the work of sportswriter George Vecsey. Whitten, 51, considered a career in journalism and became editor-in-chief of the student newspaper at New York University, but went into copywriting instead.

He refers to his latest work with the Times as a “dream assignment.”

“Not only was I influenced by the stories of the moment, and the innovative ways the Times is now reporting them, but also by the understanding of just how high a standard is set for the journalists here -- all of which I hope comes through in the writing," said Whitten, who has done copywriting for companies such as Frito-Lay, Merrill Lynch and Ford. “I’ve worked on a lot of different assignments and brands -- some of which you do just purely for financial reasons -- but working for the Times is a labor of love because I grew up reading it."

Whitten hopes the Times' journalists approve of his work.

“The greatest challenge being a copywriter for The New York times is knowing the journalists on the fourth floor who won Pulitzer Prizes are going to be watching these,” Whitten said. “If I can get past them, I'll feel like I've done my job.”

  • Mallary Jean Tenore

    As managing editor of The Poynter Institute’s website,, I report on the media news industry, edit the site’s How To section, and moderate the site's live chats. I also help handle the site's social media efforts, and teach social media sessions on the side.


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