The Economist on how social media is ‘critical’ to doubling circulation profits

The Economist has stressed the importance of social media, crediting its social activity as a ‘critical component’ in doubling the profitability of its circulation business over the last four years.

Figures released by the publication show that its social media following has grown by 44% over the last year to a total of 35.6 million. The Economist claimed this is more than any other major media brand except for The New York Times.

The Economist’s Twitter followers increased 64% to 15.7 million year-on-year between July and December 2015, while its Facebook likes grew 25% to 7.6 million and its LinkedIn group members increased by 222% to 1.4 million over the same period.

In 2015 the brand saw a 13% year-on-year rise in gross profit from its circulation business, which in part was due to culling discounted copies and attracting more subscribers who paid a premium for a bundle of print and digital editions. However, the brand’s social channels have also been a “critical component”, according to Michael Brunt, chief marketing officer and managing director of circulation at The Economist.

He told Marketing Week: “While I can’t share the exact figure, next year we will have doubled the profitability of The Economist’s circulation over the last four years, and we’re going to double it again in the next four years if my plans come to pass – and social media has played a critical part in that.”

Brunt believes social media is the best tool to get the brand in front of new readers and make The Economist part of people’s “reading repertoire”. It has also enabled it to reduce the cost of acquiring subscribers and drive growth in its digital subscriber base, which has increased 30% year on year to 300,000.

“Over a period of time, [social media] drives The Economist to become part of people’s reading habit and at that point a subscription starts to make sense,” he clarified.

“We have just over 300,000 digital subscribers, which is helping to reduce the cost of production and distribution while improving our overall profitability. So social media is a critical component of our plan to double our profits,” he said.

While the brand never gives away its “crown jewels”, which is the weekly curated edition of The Economist, it has a platform of content that is used socially, in newsletters, in its marketing and is shared with news aggregators as well.

“That provides a good breadth of our coverage but it doesn’t give away the weekly edition which is what people want to pay for.”

Michael Brunt, chief marketing officer and managing director of circulation, The Economist

When readers click through to an article via social media, those articles count towards towards a weekly quota that it gives away for free. Consumers can read more articles for free if they register and will eventually hit a pay barrier.

“While the number of people that hit the pay barrier through social is relatively low, we have high volumes of people clicking through, so it’s a good source of subscribers and traffic,” he added.

Measuring ROI through social

As a result, the most important performance indicator for the brand is to measure how many followers have become subscribers.

“We do look at look at engagement and click through rates, but we also track the number of people that we convert into subscribing. In the harshest possible way, we measure every day how many people saw something on social media and subscribed, almost like a last-click attribution model,” he explained.

Part of the brand’s growth in social followers is due to the brand’s change in social media strategy. While the editorial team has been put in charge of “injecting cheekiness and wit” into its editorial posts, the marketing team sends out regular updates on what is going to be on the cover every week.

“As the editorial posts are written by our journalists, it’s easier for them to inject wit, cheekiness and irreverence of our articles in the post. We have a really engaged following, but that has increased since we got editorial directly involved when thinking about what we should post – that’s probably been a major driver.”

No cynicism for social

Brunt added that the cynicism around the increased power of social media brands is “uncalled for”. Instead, he believes brands should adopt a more collaborative approach.

He concluded: “[Social media] isn’t easy, as people get frustrated by the organic reach. They think ‘I’ve carefully cultivated this post but only a tiny fraction of my followers are seeing it. They might get resentful that social media platforms need to make money and want you to pay to improve reach.
That’s probably what drives a lot of the cynicism.

“But if you work in partnership with them, they are actually incredibly supportive. We benefit from the council that we get. The cynicism is uncalled for – they’re a commercial operation that need to make money like everybody else.”



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