“The Economist’s shift to digital”- Tom Standage at news:rewired

Martin Belam by Martin Belam, 10 February 2012

One of the panel sessions at news:rewired last week was devoted to the paid content model. Tom Standage, digital editor of the Economist, gave an upbeat talk about the title’s success in transitioning to the digital era.

Tom stated that the point of the Economist had always been to be the weekly voice you needed to hear in order to make sense of all the other media noise. As digital has made that environment ever noisier, he said, the need for that voice has only become stronger. It should be, he said, the one magazine you’d want air-lifted to you if you were stranded on a desert island. Although, to be honest, I’d vote for an instruction manual on making rafts from palm trees.

With many magazine subscriptions, one of the biggest barriers to customer retention is people finding that they don’t have enough time to read them - leading to a sense of guilt as unread magazines pile up.

Their digital bundle model, Tom said, is designed in many ways to address that.

Because it can be an add-on to the print subscription, as well as a standalone product, it makes the print subscription feel like more value. It also means that people can consume Economist content in “information snacking” sessions during the day on iPhones and iPads, as well as having a stack of dead trees accumulate in the corner of the living room. Another innovation in the digital bundle has been the audio version of the magazine. Turning the content into a podcast means you can lose that “unread magazine guilt” whilst doing the ironing or the morning commute.

Tom Standage showed an amazing graph that illustrated that if you ask readers of the Economist how they consume the content now, 80% of them say in print, and 20% say digital. But if you ask them how they expect to consume it in two years time, an astonishing 70% say they expect it will be digital, and only 30% print. These are not some white-coated futurologists predicting the looming end of times for print, they are the Economist’s own most loyal readers. It was an astonishing thought that the readers themselves expect to shift that quickly.

The change in the Economist’s digital strategy had also seen them adopt a “metered paywall” approach. This, he explained, had been brilliant for traffic. After years of locking the search engines out, now suddenly their whole archive is available. A three year old article about Iran, he said, does just as good a job of advertising what they are about and why you should be reading them as the ones form this week. He said it was “crucial” that content could be “sampled and shared on social media.”

Just at the end of his talk, Tom made one vital point that underpins the entire Economist strategy - “the unspoken assumption is that you have distinctive content that people value.” He also made an interesting point about the nature of the Kindle device. “It isn’t an eReader”, he said, “it is a book store in your pocket.”

Next...

Also on the panel for this session was researcher François Nel. He gave a fascinating talk about “the alchemy of media business model innovation”, one which had a lot of focus on the Guardian’s digital strategy, and which sparked intense debate afterwards. I’ll be blogging my notes from that next week.

This is one of a series of blog posts featuring my notes from news:rewired:
“Did we get something of journalistic value?” - Liz Heron
“The Guardian’s Facebook app” - Martin Belam
“Great for users. Great for publishers. And great for Apple” - Alex Watson
“The Economist’s shift to digital”- Tom Standage
“The alchemy of media business model innovation” - François Nel
“Social media, investigative journalism, ethics and security” - Nicola Hughes
“Less is more - social media at the BBC” - Chris Hamilton
“Watch this (social) space...” - Darren Waters
“Me and my big photo of Mark Zuckerberg” - Nate Lanxon
“Social media optimisation” - Q&A

Keep up to date on my new blog