From man in a suit to the globally curious

The role of social media at The Economist

Denise Law
The Economist Digital


I often ask people, including strangers on London’s Tube or at social events, “who do you think reads The Economist?”

Some, mostly British people, unsurprisingly run away in disgust at the thought of interacting with a stranger in public. Other more enthusiastic types actually engage with the question.

Many tell me what I want to hear: “The ambitious. The globally curious. The intellectual. The career oriented. The (cool) nerds.” One female entrepreneur once said to me, “The Economist is the intellectual person’s guide to the world”.

Other times, and this happens more often than I’d hope, a 20-something will say: “An old man in a suit working in finance. Probably rich. Drives a Ferrari.”

Or Homer Simpson in a bathrobe… Source: Fox / Google

“We actually cover more than economics and finance,” I reply. “We have covered books and arts since 1843, when The Economist was founded! Young people also read us and watch our videos too, if they want to stay on top of global politics.”

“Really!? I had no idea!”

I walk away, feeling dejected 😢. But not because “old men in suits” read The Economist! It’s the notion that only this type of person reads us.

Indeed, we skew heavily male (and older) in print: those aged 45 and above account for 63% of our total print readership; men account for 83%.

But on, those under 45 make up nearly three-quarters of our readership and women account for 22%. On Facebook, where we have 6.5m fans, the female/male split is about 40/60 and (much) younger.

This shift in our readership from print to digital has important implications for The Economist — and its future. For a start, we can no longer rely heavily on a small demographic (even if they’re super rich) for growth, especially as print advertising continues to decline. In 2015, for example, advertising revenues at our parent company, The Economist Group, made up only a quarter of total revenues, down from 36% in 2010.

Source: Company reports

The structural decline in print advertising had prompted a Matrix-like moment for us:

We firmly believe in the paywall model — that readers should pay for well-researched and insightful journalism they can’t get anywhere else. Our investment in that belief has so far paid off. This year we expect subscriptions to account for 60% of total revenues, up from half in 2015. Digital-only subscriptions grew 31% year on year in the second half of 2015.

Yet to expand our subscriber base, we need to find new audiences and deliver our journalism to them. That is why we often use the phrase “globally curious” or “progressives” to describe our target reader. We believe that the globally curious exist anywhere — our research suggests there’s more than 70m of them around the world. And many will encounter The Economist for the first time on a social or online platform.

That is why we invested in a social media team. We needed a team of specialists who could learn the skills needed to adapt and distribute our journalism to the world — in the formats that are native to the platforms where new and younger audiences spend their time.

Our mission is simple: to increase awareness and ultimately paid readership of The Economist on distribution channels such as Facebook, Twitter, LINE and Instagram, while upholding the brand’s trusted reputation.

We face two main challenges (or opportunities): first, there’s a whole universe of people who have no idea we exist. According to Pew, 60% of Americans have never heard of The Economist. Second, many still think we write only about finance. Our role as a social media team is as committed to building awareness as it is to mythbusting.

Social media gives us the opportunity to say to the world, “hey, if you’re interested in global affairs you should read us”. Or “check out our really cool video, live Q&A, science brief or book review” — that is, the kind of stuff audiences don’t expect us to cover.

Unlike other media publishers and upstarts that rely heavily on advertising — and on social platforms to monetise readers’ attention — we are more interested in using them to find new readers, showcase the breadth of Economist journalism and bring them into our ecosystem, where we hope they will eventually pay for our work. Social platforms are a means to end, not an end in itself.

Our data show that someone is more likely to subscribe after they have sampled a breadth of our content in a variety of formats. The success of our stories from 1843 magazine — which reached millions of people on Facebook — suggests that there is demand for high quality, investigative and long-form journalism. And it’s our job to make sure our readers know about it.

Denise Law is community editor at The Economist.



Denise Law
The Economist Digital

Journalist-turned-product manager. A Canadian living in London via Hong Kong, Shanghai and Utrecht.