The (Online) World of the Economist

In New York for the O’Reilly Tools of Change for Publishing conference, I had the opportunity to speak with Wendy Elman, the VP of Marketing at The Economist’s Ms. Elman’s background is in book publishing, and she joined The Economist in July 2007.

Ms. Elman commented that the driving goals of The Economist are to earnestly seek change, while carefully maintaining a highly-regarded and identifiable brand. It believes that seeking and embracing innovation is the surest way of ensuring its relevance as a destination and a source of thought-provoking dialogue.

The Economist’s web site has been relatively innovative for a publisher many might suppose would be rather conservative; e.g., it offers not only traditional RSS feeds but podcasts; and it is beginning to develop and provide access to video content. They are also cognizant that the world — particularly outside the U.S. — is mobile, and they are enhancing their delivery options to a diverse range of handheld devices.

Interestingly, The Economist recently supported online, moderated debates on the future of education, one of which specifically caught my eye, on the impact of social media on education.

The online debates deepened the magazine’s interest and engagement with its reading community; they were a purposeful entry into online, interactive dialogue. They produced a tremendously enthusiastic response, with well thought out posts from a variety of contributors, with no or very little spam. The engagement was so vigorous that requests for additional functionality were rapidly put forward. Readers, for example, have petitioned for the persistance and continuance of the debates in an venue, something under consideration.

The Economist, observing the enthusiasm of the participants as the debates lengthened, solicited direct contributions by chosen experts in the educational area, and scheduled the posting of their comments on specific days and times. They believe this strategy increased the viral spread of the debates by leveraging the anticipation among readers of new and informed commentary, while permitting the contributors to spread word of their postings amongst their own subject community.

The Economist has also been leveraging Facebook. There are several Economist focussed groups; the largest has over 13000 members – a phenomenally sized group for such a high value audience. The Facebook communities illustrate the diversity of their audience – contrary to most lay perceptions, their readership is decidely not one of grey hairs, toddling around in bedroom slippers in the middle of the day.

The Economist not only created a new Facebook group focusing on the debates, but after much pondering, they daylighted themselves and posted as a peer, as opposed to a proprietor, within the primary Economist Facebook group. This engendered a wealth of dialogue with a crucial segment of their membership which they would otherwise have reached only with difficulty. The group then made requests for new features; suggested topics for new debates; and in several cases provided expert, informed commentary on community engagement.

One of the most difficult issues remaining for determination is the extent to which The Economist endorses activity away from the site, off their domain. On one hand encouraging community, on the other protecting brand, this is a question they have yet to resolve.

Another issue for all publishers seeking community involvement is the issue of rights surrounding user generated comment. Should these be Creative Common licensed? If so, which license, and are all the relevant international permutations covered? Should some channels of UGC be CC, and those in other domains more restricted, or more open? This is such a common question that O’Reilly and other organizations associated with new online publishing models should encourage open discussion and debate on the most permissable licensing possible – in short, how to create a beneficial “race to the top” that provides the most liberal licensing.

The Economist has realized a new core asset through its experiment with debates: the ability to draw together a normally disaggregated community around a topic and do it on an international stage -– involving a range of policymakers, administrators, parents/teachers, and activists. There is tremendous excitement about this opportunity, and a willingness to engage it at a deeper level.

Focussed debates and communities create upside opportunities for advertising and subscription revenue. It is relatively easy to find sponsors to buy into themed issues, and at a higher RPM than the base content. They also contribute to the growth of pageviews on the main Economist web site, and facilitate the vending of integrated print and online advertising.

The Economist website group is exploring new opportunities as well. As yet, in defense of their brand, they do not expect to release editorial product for direct participation or annotation by their readership. However, they are beginning to discuss how they might support user generated and submitted content for the publication. Already, the uptake of downloadable and streaming content from the website is growing very rapidly. In part to help meet the demand, The Economist has created an internal A/V service and production bureau to facilitate the growth of new media content presentation and engagement opportunities.

The Economist wants its content to be easily discoverable, and has initiated a significant SEO effort across the range of its offerings, actively considering what metadata is useful for discovery and consumption. They are integrating the premium data obtained by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), while maintaining licensed or subscription access to a deeper level of EIU offerings. Intriguingly, they have started exploring richer online visualizations of data, including analyses that might be directly manipulable by their readership.

The Economist’s mantra has been active encouragement of trying new things, and to display success as profligately as possible. In this fashion, successes become part of the internal case study for innovation, re-utilized in company presentations, fostering acceptance of further experimentation. The publication supports the necessity of change at the topmost management levels, with enough autonomy to gel ideas into reality. The publication strives to find a point of reasonable risks, while ensuring the persistance of the brand’s reputation.

The question for The Economist, as is the case for all publishers, is whether they will be able to transform themselves quickly enough to adopt to changing readership expectations for access and engagement, while fostering the ability of their tremendous content assests to work amongst themselves to create new services and products with the continuing pedigree of the brand. At the very least, driven at the speed of journalism rather than more traditional models of book production, the publication is experimenting and adopting more rapidly than many.

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