At 174, The Economist is Playing a Longer Social Game than You
A diverse content strategy across multiple platforms keeps the brand young and relevant.
The Economist’s Deputy Community Manager, Adam Smith, knows well enough that the 15-year-old Snapchatter reading the magazine’s latest Discover article on the prison system is not about to pull out a credit card and subscribe for $152/yr digital access. “But if we get into their media diet now, then they will continue to follow us on different social platforms and are more likely to subscribe later,” he says.
That’s the kind of exceptionally long game this 174-year-old title has the patience to play on social. And apparently it’s working. With just under 1.5 million paid subscribers, The Economist punches way above its weight on social, with a footprint of over 40 million, including the most Twitter followers (21 million) of any magazine we track in our monthly Social Media Boxscores. But part of their secret is not to obsess over followers or even the usual engagement calculus. “It is really about engagement and in our case their propensity to subscribe,” Smith says. “That is what our business model is based on. What we want is people to engage the content because it makes them more likely to subscribe rather than a million eyeballs on the site to serve to advertisers. We have never had a business model based around advertising.”
This is brand building in a grand and perhaps more classic style. In addition to its long, long play on Snapchat, for instance, the 1.1 million followers of The Economist on Instagram don’t even get familiar magazine content. That feed has been turned over to the magazine’s photo editors who simply publish several of the most interesting or inspiring images that pass across their desks each day. Among the magazines we track, its feed had the fifth fastest-growing follower base in July.
There’s a fundamental strategic difference between driving traffic and driving subscriptions. “We aren’t optimized to get a viral hit,” Smith says. “We’re trying to build that more sustainable, loyal habit.” That means staying true to both the voice and the range of The Economist content. They find the most loyal audience on Facebook, and their posts do simple things differently, like headlines. Unlike many other brands, “We don’t try to provoke strong emotions. It’s meant to be pointed and clear.”
Likewise, presenting a diversity of content is critical to driving subscribers rather than eyeballs. Less than half of The Economist actually is about economics, while the rest is about politics, international affairs and culture. “One of our big goals is to bust the myth that we are a finance magazine,” Smith says, while admitting that “the name doesn’t help.” But the brand sees itself more as a multimedia newspaper, publishing over 80 print articles a week, as well as online-only pieces, five podcasts and an audio version. It has the metrics to show that the more different types of content social users sample, the more likely they are to subscribe. Communicating the range of content and formats via social communicates the value of a subscription.
Of course, even with its far-horizon view, The Economist also understands the branding value of a viral hit. In response to last week’s Charlottesville controversy, the magazine cover provocatively featured an image of President Trump using a KKK hood as a megaphone. The image enjoyed five times the usual retweets of the brand’s content, and the animated version had twice the typical reach. Perhaps more important to the brand, however, the cover got grouped in with other pointed U.S. covers that went viral in the media. “There was a multiplier effect,” Smith notes. In fact, the UK-based Smith was brought to the U.S. for the year to help broaden awareness here and get his brand into American news habits. “It was up there with other huge publications like The New Yorker and Time,” he says. “This is the kind of thing that is a total bonus for us.”