Awareness Over Viral Hits: Inside The Economist's Social Media Strategy

April 18, 2016

Written by NewsWhip
The Economist header image

We interview the Community Editor at the Economist, about the site’s social media strategy, and their experiments with messaging apps to reach new readers. 
The Economist on Facebook
The Economist is one of the most recognisable names in world media.
Each week, the paper addresses a global agenda, seeing thousands of social engagements on supposedly niche topics such as the global steel industry and pharmaceutical mergers.
While the Economist’s print readership remains impressively high (over 3.8 million readers each month according to their own numbers), the magazine has been adapting to digital realities in recent years.
Their Espresso app, offering a quick round-up of the day’s headlines to mobile subscribers, has been praised, and is in the process of being redesigned.
Those measures, among others, have helped the UK-based publisher’s digital circulation grow by just over 30% in the last year. Now the Economist has identified a large potential audience of ‘globally interested’ readers, in the UK and further afield, which to target for further growth.
But goals for the Economist are different to those of BuzzFeed’s, the Guardian, or, closer to their competitive set, Quartz. For those free sites, social media acts as a means to scale audience. The Economist operates a tight paywall, and must balance reaching readers with growing site subscriptions.

Xi #Jinping does not need to be as extreme as #Mao for his concentration of #power to cause harm

A video posted by The Economist (@theeconomist) on

So, what does the Economist’s social media strategy look like?
Community Editor Denise Law tells me that last summer, the decision was made to increase the social team significantly, with a view to stamping their brand on different platforms.
The Economist’s social media team is now made up of 10 people based mostly in London but also in DC and Hong Kong. Their job is to adapt and distribute the Economist’s journalism for social media channels.
On a day-to-day basis, each member oversees and particular beat or platform. Everyone is responsible for Facebook and Twitter, but different members look after other platforms like Youtube, LinkedIn, Pinterest and more recently, Line, the Asian messaging app
“Our social media team are our chief curators for their platforms. They take our journalism and they adapt it for social media,” says Denise.

Awareness over viral hits

Unlike a lot of upstarts, which are monetised by pageviews, the Economist aren’t all that concerned about what goes viral. Their data shows that someone is more likely to subscribe to their site if they sample a breadth of the content that’s on offer.
“The overarching goal of the Economist’s social media team is to increase awareness, and ultimately, readership through social platforms. We believe there’s a whole universe of globally curious people who should be reading the Economist. They either don’t know about us, or they know very little about us. It’s our role as social media curators to go out to these people and say you should read us.”
But is it difficult to compete with those sites on social media, and is there an appetite and enthusiasm for the type of content that the Economist provides on Facebook?
Denise says that there ‘absolutely’ is.
As we’ve already seen with the likes of the New York Times, high quality analysis from recognised media names can do very well amongst a certain audience on Facebook. The Economist’s social media team looks to tap the same arena.
“The difference with us is that we aren’t looking to monetise third party platforms, and we believe that people should pay for high quality journalism.”
And NewsWhip data shows that the Economist’s Facebook engagements are on the rise. In March, the site had over 1.26 million engagements (likes, comments and shares) on stories published during the month alone. And given that the Economist’s archives hold a trove of stories, total engagement on everything the social media team post is even higher – up around 40% since taking their new roles up in September, according to Denise.
The Economist also managed over 190,000 shares on LinkedIn in March, putting them at the higher end of the scale for publisher engagement on the network, which presumably serves as fertile territory for the site.
Rigorous testing has been at least partly responsible for the improvements.
“We take data very seriously, in terms of how it can inform our strategy. So on Facebook for example, we have a two strike rule. If we test a format two times and it tanks, we will come up with a new format,” explains Denise.
And if people do find that content interesting, click through to the site, return again and eventually subscribe, the Economist team will know. “We measure every day how many people saw something on social media and subscribed, almost like a last-click attribution model,” Michael Brunt, chief marketing officer and managing director of circulation told Marketing Week recently.

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One of the advantages of promoting the content of one of the world’s best-known current affairs newspapers online is that there’s already a wealth of archival content waiting to be adapted for new social audiences.
A recent example was a story around marijuana legalisation. The social team gathered previous Economist covers featuring the story together as a Facebook album, providing readers with some historical context around the story.

Messaging new markets

More recently, the Economist has been experimenting with various instant messaging apps, including Line. Line has strong penetration in Asian markets like Japan, Thailand and Indonesia, and a growing presence in India.
The Economist on Line
“Line is a fascinating platform for us,” says Denise. After several months of activity on the platform, the Economist now has 150,000 followers.
“Line gives us access to highly engaged audiences in our emerging markets. We have followers in South Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia that we otherwise wouldn’t have. It also enables us to experiment with a mobile-only platform.”
“I think it has two main attractions – you can drive people to your site using push notifications, and you can promote visually compelling charts and videos on your ‘homepage’.”
In the first four weeks on Line, the Economist sent out seven push notifications, which resulted in a click-through rate of more than 2%, according to Denise. The type of stories that the social team tends to push on Line are different to what they promote on some of their bigger channels; they’re global-based items, often with an Asian focus.
Overall, the Economist’s social strategy is still developing. For, says Denise, “our main metric is reach. We want to reach as many people as possible.”

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