The eight lessons we learned

Social media team: one year later

A year ago, The Economist placed a big bet on social media. We expanded our editorial social-media team from two to ten people with the aim of delivering our journalism to more globally curious people around the world.

The decline in print advertising — accelerated by the rapid rise of digital media — has prompted us to focus more on building a sustainable subscriptions-based business. We have long believed in the paywall model; that readers should pay for well-researched journalism they can’t get elsewhere. To expand our subscriber base, we need to find new subscribers, which is why we invested in a social-media team.

We have made huge progress so far. The Economist’s social-media following expanded by 55% year-on-year. Unique visitors from social channels are up 40% during the same period. Remarkably, monthly social-media engagements rose nearly 90% year on year despite fewer users logging onto Twitter and Facebook tightening its algorithm. Digital subscriptions, meanwhile, increased by 31% year-on-year in the second half of 2015, proving that people are willing to pay for high quality content despite an abundance of free alternatives.

None of this was an easy feat. Here are the eight most important lessons we learned in the past year.

1. Identify your problems and build a strategy that solves them

In finding new subscribers, The Economist faces two main challenges. First, there’s a whole universe of people who have no clue we exist. According to Pew, 60% of Americans have never heard of us. Second, many think we cover only economics and finance when in reality we’ve been writing about politics, culture and other topics since 1843, the year we were founded.

Social media plays a crucial role in helping to solve these problems. Our mission is both to raise awareness about our brand and to change misconceptions about what we offer. We do this by showcasing the breadth of our journalism in a variety of formats as well as responding to angry queries by readers when we post, for example, a film review.

Our data show that someone is more likely to subscribe to The Economist after they have sampled a breadth of our content, reinforcing our strategy of promoting all stories, rather than only the ones with the broadest appeal.

2. Know your target audience and tailor your product to them

We’re not interested in competing on the same scale as the world’s largest publishers; we are not aiming to reach everybody. Rather, we aim to build awareness of The Economist among the globally curious. Our internal research shows that there are more than 70 million English speaking “progressives” globally. We strive to find and deliver our journalism to them. Focusing on a specific audience, rather than reaching for infinity and beyond, means we can resist the temptation to dumb down how we present ourselves on social media.

3. Use data to deny and confirm your assumptions. Prioritise ruthlessly

We use data to make smarter decisions. We recently hired a data scientist and editorial data analyst who provide historical and real-time data to help us better understand how our audiences interact with us across different social media platforms.

We also use data to help us figure out where to focus our time and energy. Our data scientist audited our Twitter accounts and found them to be inefficient: we were spending too much time writing tweets for section accounts that generated little traffic and engagement. So we reallocated some of this time towards building audiences on other platforms such as LinkedIn and LINE, as well as experimenting with new storytelling formats on Facebook and the main Twitter account, @TheEconomist.

A final word on data, courtesy of our colleague Kenneth Cukier:

We use data to determine how best to present our stories on social media, rather than to influence what to produce editorially. We do not use the data as a way of convincing editors to commission more stories based on their popularity on social media, for example.

4. Experiment, measure and learn

We really just want to get stuff done. So we try to avoid hour-long meetings and instead opt for 15–20 minute “huddles” that focus on developing an idea and figuring out how to make it happen. The best way to innovate is to experiment.

We then take a look at whether the experiment met, exceeded or fell short of our median metrics. If the experiment completely bombed, we then decide whether to ditch the idea or tweak and try again. If it succeeded, we test it a few more times before officially building it into our workflow. One example is charts optimised for social media. We tested them multiple times in different formats until we developed a successful formula:

Through experimentation, as well as working closely with data analysts, designers and developers, we have managed to quickly figure out what works and fails across platforms.

This process has allowed us to develop popular social-friendly formats such as On This Day cards, slideshows and mythbusters.

5. Tear down the walls between departments

We literally removed the walls between several offices on the 12th floor of The Economist. The social-media team now shares an open space with data analysts, news editors and interactive designers. Several of our social-media writers sit with section editors and correspondents so they can work closely together.

By combining the skills of editors, social-media writers, developers, data analysts and marketing colleagues, we put our readers at the heart of what we do. It’s our job to work together to ensure that we deliver our journalism in accessible digital-friendly formats.

6. Always choose quality over quantity

Our reputation is everything. When we set up the team last summer, our main priority was growth. The desire to catch up with rivals meant that we posted more content more frequently. Over time, we realised that operating as a tweet-churning factory was not only unsustainable but potentially damaging to the brand.

In January, we decided to refocus onto boosting the quality of our social media output rather than pumping out more tweets. We endeavour to apply the same level of commitment to quality on social media as we do in print.

We also introduced a social-media style guide to ensure that our ideas and experiments abide by the highest standards. We rejected ideas that failed the “tabloid test”, meaning they offered nothing new or “Economisty” to readers. We now often ask ourselves: does this piece of social media journalism make someone feel smarter? If the answer is “no”, we abandon the idea.

7. Do things, show people

When we launched the social-media department, many editorial colleagues were naturally sceptical about what it would mean for the brand (justifiably so, given its 175-year heritage). Others questioned whether social media would actually lead to more subscriptions. I’m now pleased to say that it does and we have data to prove it. But data alone do not change hearts and minds. Our team is focused as much on building brand awareness as it is on fostering cultural change.

We do this by getting stuff done, sharing the results with staff, encouraging them to give us feedback and showing them how we do it. We are, after all, a constantly evolving department. And we have evolved because of the help of correspondents and editors. What we don’t do is try to force through change, such as demanding that everyone tweet.

8. Involve journalists in the workflow

This is probably the most important lesson we learned. It’s not enough to blow stuff up in a corner and hope someone will notice your efforts. Digital journalism is about working with the people who have great story ideas, i.e. the journalists. We try to involve them in everything we do.

Many in the editorial department now help to check copy before it goes out on social media to ensure we accurately represent a piece. Many writers file tweets with their stories or send us suggestions of old pieces to re-promote.

We also work with editors and correspondents to develop “social-only” formats. During the Brexit referendum campaign, we collaborated closely with our Britain correspondents to produce Facebook live Q&As, mythbusters and fact cards. This process enables everyone to learn together.

There are plenty more lessons to learn over the next 12 months as we try to find more globally curious subscribers. We’re excited by the prospect of experimenting further, collaborating with colleagues—and, we hope, winning more new readers along the way.

Denise Law is community editor at The Economist.