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How The Economist built a successful global reader acquisition channel by bringing its content to life

What started out as a brief tactical test with global brand experience agency Sense in the UK has now delivered over 150,000 subscriptions across eight countries. 

The Economist, the world-renowned weekly current affairs title, has an average global print circulation of 867,000 and a combined print/digital subscription audience of 1.67 million. Although headquartered in London, over half of all its subscribers are based in the U.S., with a further 19% in the UK, 16% in continental Europe, and 10% in Asia.

Key to the newspaper’s ongoing success is that it is continually innovating around subscription acquisition strategies. This drive for growth led to a partnership with global brand experience agency Sense that spawned an unusual, innovative and successful campaign over the past few years. 

To accelerate reader growth, The Economist knew it had to engage with new audiences by looking further afield and encouraging a re-evaluation of everything people thought they knew about it, as many non-readers either held a misconception of its content or shared a basic lack of awareness of the title.

Sense identified an untapped opportunity to bring The Economist’s content to life, in high footfall real-world locations, in a way that would attract its core reader profile and secure immediate subscriptions.

“When we started our journey with The Economist, we had to confront a misconception that has haunted the brand for many years – that it’s an uphill struggle to read,” recalls Sense Account Director Sarah Norfolk. “An idea so embedded in the popular consciousness such as this couldn’t have been totally unfounded, so instead of denying it, we wanted to play with it. Because every ‘weakness’, reframed, is a strength. Our ideas were born out of challenging people, using The Economist’s own content to test our audience, showing people that real value doesn’t always come easy, but that it will always be worth the journey.”

Insects on the menu

Sense used articles that The Economist had already published which gave a challenging or uncomfortable prediction of the future, and then looked at how they could appeal to the curiosity of the title’s audience. After a brief successful trial in London, this ‘Discomfort Future’ strategy launched across the streets and consumer hubs in the UK. The Economist had started breaking out of the printed page to try and build relationships with people not afraid of a challenge.

Sense’s first activity drew on an article explaining “why eating insects makes sense”, as insects could provide a crucial source of sustainable protein as the world faces a possible future food supply crisis.

This new ingredient to people’s diet was introduced in a palatable way by offering insect ice cream in the summer, and crepes in the winter. The Sense team set up booths in high footfall areas, enticing people with what looked like appealing dishes, then revealing their six-legged secret. This made for a great conversation point about both the subject and its source The Economist, enabling a transition to discussing the benefits of taking up a subscription. This unusual campaign proved a great success with far more people signing up than initially forecast.

No meat and waste veg

The Economist and Sense’s next idea focused on food waste. “Thousands of tonnes of fruit and veg is sent to landfill when it’s still perfectly fit for human consumption,” explains Norfolk. “To highlight this fact we gave away tasty smoothies – made entirely from discarded food.”

At this point, it was clear the overall campaign was working well, so the format was refreshed and expanded globally with a switch in focus to a ‘Sustainable Future’. This featured two activities, one entitled ‘Beyond Meat’ which enticed consumers with a free burger, not letting on that it was, in fact, plant-based.

During the reveal, alarming meat industry stats were presented that would cause the potential subscriber to pause and reflect. Next, ‘Don’t bin plastics… yet’ turned the issue of plastic waste on its head by discussing the benefits (and myths) of plastic consumption as reported in The Economist.

Breaking new ground

More activities followed, and since 2014, this array of innovative real-world interactions built around the latest content from The Economist generated over 150,000 subscriptions across eight countries, with the campaign winning 16 awards in the process. Drilling down a little deeper, over 500,000 ‘meaningful engagements’ were achieved across 2,329 ‘live’ days.

“Shifting The Economist’s brand strategy away from classic out-of-home, to a mix of digital brand response, PR and experiential marketing in the real world proved highly successful in building brand awareness and engagement, while crucially driving measurable conversions,” says Norfolk. “By speaking to the right audience in the right way, we broke new ground in reader acquisition. The results speak for themselves and are particularly pertinent now as global media aim to retain and build their readerships post lockdown.”

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