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How The Economist grows revenue by experimenting with the digital experience

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The Economist has more than doubled the amount of web traffic it receives via newsletters over the past year. This was achieved with the help of redesigns and content changes. The publisher—one of the few that earn more from its print and digital subscribers than advertising—continues to tweak its digital offerings, including its website, apps, and newsletters. 

The Economist has 1.7M print and digital subscribers, and made £333M in annual revenue, according to its Annual Report 2019. 59% of that came from subscriptions and circulation. Advertising revenue accounted for 17%—a 3% reduction compared to the previous year.

“Help them get more value out of our journalism”

Sunnie Huang, Newsletter Editor at The Economist told WAN-IFRA in an interview last year, “Almost every week there are some sort of experiments going on. They could be as small as testing different image sizes or as drastic as overhauling the format of a newsletter. Every week we learn something new about our audience and grow as a team.”

She added, “Over the past year, there was a clear shift in the way we think about newsletters: rather than treating them as another loudspeaker to distribute our content, we began a process to shape them into stand-alone products that serve the needs of readers.”

The primary goal of our newsletters isn’t to increase reach; that’s the job of our social media platforms. For newsletters, the primary goal is to deepen our relationship with current readers and help them get more value out of our journalism.

Sunnie Huang, Newsletter Editor at The Economist

Huang said that the team believes in solving business problems by solving customer problems. They talked with readers to understand their requirements and worked with UX researchers, designers, developers and editors to develop hypotheses on how they could meet readers’ needs. They built prototypes that were tested with real users, and then made changes based on the feedback.

“We put our design thinking hat on. Instead of developing newsletters in a vacuum and forcing them on readers, we wanted to find out what our readers’ needs and pain points are, and then, how we can best design newsletters to address those needs,” Huang told Reuters.

The newsletters’ job, she commented, “is to further highlight the depth and breadth of our journalism to encourage registered users to subscribe, and to help subscribers get more value out of their subscriptions.” 

“Showcase the breadth of what we cover”

Changes made to the newsletter mean that it now guides the reader through the print edition instead of offering a selection of stories from the site. Magazine covers are now more prominent and have a longer introduction to the cover story. This helps build excitement for the latest edition. Further, editor’s picks have been increased from four stories to seven, to display the range of content. 

In fact, The Economist has also been working at expanding the range of topics it covers. Recently, it got into covering sports to grow its audience. Dan Rosenheck, Data Editor at The Economist says, “The biggest obstacle to getting new subscribers is people thinking that The Economist only covers economics. So anything we can do to showcase the breadth of what we cover is a help.”

According to Marina Haydn, The Economist’s Managing Director of Global Circulation, while headline stories drive subscriptions, regular engagement happens when readers dig deeper into other topics like culture and that keeps churn stable. Products like apps, podcasts and newsletters can highlight these topic areas.

“Focus is more on value over volume”

Earlier this year, the publisher tightened its paywall and now offers 5 articles for free over a month, compared to 3 per week earlier. This was done after they found that people either read five articles before subscribing or signed up immediately. 

We’re very much on a growth trajectory, the focus is more on value over volume.

Marina Haydn, The Economist’s Managing Director of Global Circulation

With the newsletter demonstrating the value and breadth of content, and increasing website traffic, there is increased possibility of more readers signing up as subscribers. According to The Economist, a potential subscriber who receives the weekly newsletter is around 1.4 times more likely to subscribe than one who does not. 

Between July and December 2018, the publisher’s daily and weekly newsletters reached 1.3M registered users globally. The average open rate between the two is 27%, compared to 21.9% average open rates for media and publishing newsletters according to MailChimp.

“Becoming a subscriber-first publication”

Last year, the publisher launched a new app for subscribers and has also been exploring the possibilities of video driving subscriptions. All these efforts are geared towards engaging and retaining existing subscribers, and attracting new ones.

Denise Law, Head of Product at The Economist, told Digiday, “People who engage with digital products are more likely to re-engage with their subscription. We want to demonstrate through the app that you don’t need to read from cover to cover to get value.” 

He added, “The idea is to bring a new culture of becoming a subscriber-first publication. The biggest implication is better serving our paid readers. We’re not just making money from eyeballs, but growing reader revenue.”

Download WNIP’s comprehensive report—50 Ways to Make Media Pay—an essential read for publishers looking at the multiple revenue opportunities available, whether it’s to reach new audiences or double down on existing super-users. The report is free and can be downloaded here.