Chicago Magazine Turns Email Subscribers into VIPs

Make your email promotions sound exclusive and your readers won’t mind getting them

Chicago magazine caters to the upper crust crowd of Chicagoans. How upper? Oh, very, dahling: The average print subscriber is a female, age 25-54, a college graduate in a managerial position with a household income of $255k and a net worth of $1,518,800. She also owns a house in Chicago worth around $548k. Online subscribers are similar, but slightly less affluent ($112k median household income) and are slightly more likely to be male (53%) than female (47%).

This summer, Chicago offered special ad features for advertisers in their Ultimate Guide to Summer and their frequent Marketplace specials, Summer Getaways, Farmer’s Marketplace, Brunch Spots and others. Despite these being print-centric advertisements, they offered partner promotions through email that aligned with the theme throughout the summer. After all, a cocktail-making class and a getaway to Napa sound like everything you need in a guide to summer!

I found a few more good lessons from Chicago magazine to share with location-specific, ad-driven publishers.

How Chicago magazine builds an email list clearly gets the whole email thing on their homepage. They don’t hide their newsletters below the fold like so many others we’ve witnessed. Instead, they have a call-to-action for all eight of their newsletters right before their magazine ad.

That’s where it stops, though. Article pages don’t have any requests for readers to join their email list. Even though these pages are the ones people are most likely to land on, they’ve removed the newsletter widget from their sidebar completely. In fact, after leaving the homepage, I couldn’t find links to their newsletters anywhere else on the site except in the footer and on the index pages of a few of their main tabs.

This pains me because it means that when people read an article on, more than likely they’ll leave without a trace. If they integrated email collection into their site, through text ads in articles, or OFIEs, not only would they have have many chances to sell Chicago to them in the future, but they’d have a larger email list to sell to their advertisers.

But, if by chance you don’t miss the opportunity to click on their list of email newsletters, you may get a unique landing page for the newsletter you choose, or you’ll get a list of everything you can subscribe to. One exception is the Naperville Social Calendar, which belongs to Naperville magazine.

Each newsletter serves a specific niche:

Chicago Guide suits everybody. It’s hand-curated, and gives you all the events worth knowing about.

Chicago Travel is a promotional newsletter about getaways and deals.

Dish is, you guessed it, about good food in the city.

Domestica is curated by Chicago Home + Garden, has interviews with designers and promotes new home products.

Sales Check: shopping experiences.

Special Offers: third-party ads and promotions.

VIP List: events thrown by Chicago.

Having seven newsletters — even if they aren’t promoted aggressively — is a good practice for a regional magazine that covers many different topics. Foodies may have no interest whatsoever in reading about new home products or travel deals on the website, but they’re a good bet to subscribe to Dish and thus remain a potential customer for Chicago for a good long while.

And like most ad-driven publishers, their email newsletters are highly influenced by their sponsors. It’s a good thing they’ve got some great content to wedge in between!


Chicago magazine email schedule and frequency

Chicago sends a promotion every day Monday – Thursday. They also do VIP emails every Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

Here’s a gander at their email list. In red, I highlight the newsletters that are largely promotional. Emails aren’t totally consistent in timing but generally send around either 12pm or 2pm, Chicago time. This is a fairly high contact frequency, which increases Chicago’s chances to make sales, and yet with the varied content, they reduce their risk of annoying potential customers.

How Chicago magazine makes money through email

Editorial-based emails, like those from Chicago Guide and Chicago Travel newsletters, mostly promote their own events and guides. They leave plenty of room for advertiser sponsorships, but they choose to promote the events and guides that advertisers have already paid for. Most include one or two outside ads though, so perhaps the internal ads are just saving space for potential advertisers.

Chicago is great at honing in on a single product promotion, like this Napa adventure, and promoting it over and over again throughout the week in every email newsletter. If by the end of the week a user hasn’t subscribed, or if they’re simply not on the other email lists, then they’ll feel special with a VIP invite instead. Great follow up.

One thing I was struggling to find was a correlation between the daily editorial email and the promotion that went out. While that strategy is practiced above by promoting the same big item all week, it could have been practiced daily too.

For example,  on a Tuesday, they send a promotional email for a private cocktail experience. Why not, in the designated Sales Check email that day, include an article on mixology? Or, send the cocktail email on Wednesday when the Dish email goes out? I’m just adding my two cents here, but with all the promotions they send out, I’d seek better alignment, even though every subscriber is not on every list.

What Chicago magazine does best

I think Chicago has the potential to build a much larger email list by building email capture into their article pages. There’s also a great system in place to develop their email advertising strategy even more by aligning topics with partner offers. It’s possible that I was simply unable to catch their complete strategy in the few short weeks I’ve been monitoring, so Chicago, if you’re listening, straighten me out in the comments!

What I love is that Chicago has very simple, clean emails. In terms of advertising, this makes their well-designed ads stand out to their readers. They also have a robust promotional strategy that they’ve turned into a service for their readers by making them VIP offers.

Considering the affluent readers that lie in their target audience, they’ve done a great job at making their readers feel special, and coming up with offers that align with their interests. No cheapo deals, just lavish experiences. A trip to Napa, anyone?


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