In an industry dominated by fake news, click bait and traditional news outlets struggling to let go of old operating models, The Economist is innovating its product and marketing approach to build trust and credibility with audiences
In an industry dominated by fake news, click bait and traditional news outlets struggling to let go of old operating models, The Economist could teach the Fairfaxe and NewsCorps a thing or two about how to attract and retain, readers.
Unsurprisingly, it’s all about content – writing trusted content, surfacing personalised content in the right context, and serving it up in ways readers want to consume it, says chief marketing officer (CMO) of The Economist, Mark Cripps.
And it’s an approach that’s delivering. Unlike many media companies, The Economist has been steadily increasing its revenue over the last five years, according to its 2019 Annual Report. It achieved revenues of £333.4 million (AUD$603m) in 2018, compared with £329 million in the previous year and £278 million in 2015.
A key element is investing heavily in marketing to grow its subscriber base, while reducing reliance on advertiser revenue. The most recent release of the Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC) January to June 2019 show The Economist’s circulation holding steady at 1.6 million worldwide across print and digital. Global print circulation is just over 850,000 and global digital circulation is nearly 800,000. In APAC, overall circulation is just shy of 150,000, up 0.9 per cent year-on-year.
Cripps told CMO The Economist is a trusted brand and marketing is making sure it retains, and capitalises, on this sentiment.
“We’ve got a strong presence, brand and content, and people love the brand. We do ABC figures every six months, and we are holding our own,” he said. “People are interested in what’s going on and want to be informed by a trusted source, so we are doing everything we can to capitalise on that.”
One way has been by increasing marketing spend to £56.4m in 2018, 14 per cent more than the previous year. Investment in technology is crucial too, with the ambition to introduce state-of-the-art marketing and customer-service capabilities, and to deliver digital products more effectively. The media company also continues to invest in digital editorial products, launching a new Economist app on Apple devices and podcast series.
Cripps said the marketing function ensures relevant content is surfaced at the right time to readers, and potential readers, and new channels to attract news readers are constantly being launched.
“Our overall strategy is to surface content to people that relevant, in relevant contexts. If they are reading about Syria, for example, then we will move some of our relevant content into an ad, and present that to them, then they go The Economist and read that article, and then we can retarget them.
“Ultimately, it’s all about the content, it’s important to keep it fresh.”
Across the marketing channels mix, both paid and organic social has been a key area of activity for The Economist, and is particularly important as an experiential element for building awareness. Another channel doing spectacularly well, Cripps says, is podcasting.
“We are one of the few brands able to leverage podcasts channels for direct response purposes,” he explains.
Like many brands, The Economist is also striving to build personalisation. While always contextually relevant, Cripps says the organisation is looking to increasingly surface more relevant content as it gets to know people.
“Relevant and contextual and personal content creates an emotional connection with our audiences,” he says.
In terms of garnering subscriptions, social also works well for The Economist, and the group is seeing a surprising resurgence in print.
“Margins are higher on digital products, but we present offerings in an agnostic way, and it’s the same price point. We find a lot of people are still choosing the physical products, people still like print. We are unique in that sense, as a lot of readers take pleasure in sitting down and reading it over coffee every week. We are seeing a resurgent in print generally, people are bored of watching things on screen, I think print will hang around for a while yet,” Cripps comments.
A tactic that’s been helping lift subscriptions is having physical stands in various countries. “When we do things like the stand, we look at initial acquisition rate and long lifetime value. We were spotting about a year ago people that people took a digital subscription via the stand were prone not to activate it despite having paid for it. So what we now do is help them activate it there and then, which greatly improved lifetime value for us.
“Of course, what gets us the most subscribers is social, we get good reach and good engagement on social.”
A younger demographic
Another priority for Cripps is attracting a younger audience. One thing that’s helping is the launch of a product called Espresso that allows people to read five short articles a day. This has been particularly useful in building an entry-level pricing option.
“We have an Open Future event, an initiative aimed at younger and new readers, talking about issues younger people are interested in, like future of markets, freedom of speech, things like that,” Cripps continues. “Last year, we got about four million people exposed to this content, 60 per cent of which were new readers. We are streaming it this year as well in October.
“Young people hugely care what’s going on, because it’s their future. Things like Brexit affect them materially, and they have interest in border control and immigration.”
In addition to this, this year The Economist launched a new podcast called The Intelligence, a daily snapshot of things that matter every day, which already has two million unique listeners every month.
“I think there will be a radio resurgence as well, not just podcasts. But we are seeing a massive demand for podcasts, we are not at the height of this yet,” Cripps says. “We also have a films unit, and lot of subscribers on YouTube. Video on mobile devices will continue to be very popular, people are in the habit of watching videos, it’s how they want to consume information, particularly younger readers.”
The Economist is also actively educating against fake news by launching a new education foundation.
“We have something called the Economist Education Foundation, which is teaching young children how to spot fake news and how to analyse everything they read. Most people if they are smart and curious can see through fake news anyway,” Cripps says.
Ultimately, people are looking for trusted news sources now and The Economist is front and centre on the credible list.
“I don’t see the fake news tsunami stopping anytime soon. So we aim to capitalise on the trust we have we good content in the right context,” Cripps adds.