How The Economist injected digital into a 172-year-old magazine

My second talk of the second day of the Festival of Marketing was all about digital transformation in the media world, something many publications are still struggling with.

The Economist’s Iain Noakes, whose job title – Global Digital Acquisition Journey and Performance Director – clearly wouldn’t fit on a conventional business card, discussed how he helped inject tech into a 172-year-old magazine.

The first thing Noakes is keen to stress is that despite its recent efforts The Economist is not actually a digital brand.

“We’re platform agnostic,” he says. “We fit our content into whatever platform our readers are using.”

Coping with ad blockers

One of the key challenges for The Economist has been the rise of ad blocking, something that has been the bane of publishers’ lives in recent years and particularly in the last few months.

As a result, ad revenue has not replaced the money lost on the print side, Noakes says.

So The Economist’s digital strategy had to focus on more than just display advertising.

Reaching its potential readers

“Firstly we wanted to enhance our core product, to make sure we could be wherever our readers were and be available in a variety of formats.”

The Economist researched its potential market and realised that it could grow its circulation from 1.6m to 73m if it followed the above strategy.

And that’s just in English-speaking territories. If it expanded to local languages it could potentially achieve a circulation of 131m.

Getting around the paywall

The Economist sits behind a paywall, so one of the problems it experienced was around exposing people to its content just enough that they would subscribe to see more.

Noakes believes a softly-softly approach works best, which The Economist achieves by publishing sponsored content on a standalone hub.

“We let people experience our content without being encumbered by all the monetisation challenges. If you warm people up first you have a much better chance of securing a subscription later.”

According to Noakes, a large proportion of people subscribe once they’ve browsed the content hub, but those who don’t are then retargeted with further content.

In terms of ads, Noakes says the key is in creative that is surprising and provocative, using content as the hook.

Then he says it’s important to place ads contextually in places where The Economist’s audience naturally resides, such as The Huffington Post.

Getting the tech right

“We’ve worked hard to support the plumbing behind the scenes,” he says. “We want the creative to look right wherever it’s placed.”

But when it comes to tech such as automation and re-targeting, Noakes says it’s important not to let the customer experience suffer as a result.

“We need to ensure we’re not just using tech to bombard people and become an annoyance.”

Content-led vs. price-led ads

There are two main types of display ad The Economist uses.

One is content-focused, where the ad will include an article title and a hook to get people to click through and read the full piece.

The other type is price-led, where it will offer a deal such as five issues for £6.

This latter technique is used for when people have already shown an interest in subscribing, i.e. they browsed the subscription page but didn’t convert.

Key findings

One of the things The Economist has found is that, while it has smashed its targets in terms of attracting prospects, it is still struggling to convert all of those into subscribers.

But Noakes believes this is par for the course in any digital transformation of this scale, because not all parts of the business are as joined up as they could be.

Another interesting insight was that desktop traffic is converting much more than mobile for The Economist. Again, Noakes puts this down to parts of the site not being as mobile-friendly as he’d like.

In terms of channels, social and in-feed advertising have generated the best results.

Content-based ads have generated the highest click-through rates, although not necessarily the most subscriptions. And ‘timeless’ articles perform much better than ‘timely’ ones.

As a final note, Noakes was keen to stress the importance of being patient when it comes to programmatic ads.

“Programmatic becomes more efficient over time and should always be ‘on’”

Where to next?

“We’ve managed to convince the board that investing in digital is worthwhile,” Noakes says.

“We’ve attracted more than 4m new prospects to The Economist website since our campaign launched, and we’ve generated more than 3,000 subscriptions.”

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