Inside The Economist’s Plan to Conquer America
CMO Michael Brunt details the 175-year-old magazine's strategy to boost circulation revenue by penetrating a still largely untapped market.
Running a profitable, mass-market magazine whose revenue is overwhelmingly driven by print advertising is — to put things mildly — a much riskier proposition in 2017 than it was a decade ago. And even with an audience that is among the most affluent, loyal, and worldly of any weekly magazine, The Economist is no exception.
Michael Brunt, the magazine’s London-based CMO and managing director of circulation, puts things more succinctly: “The Economist is not immune to recent declines in advertising revenue.”
While pullbacks in print ad spending have certainly been felt across the industry, one needs to look no further than the demise of Meredith’s More to see that there has been an acute effect on both the luxury space and the European market — a kind of perfect storm that seems to make Brunt’s explicit goal, achieving circulation profitability for The Economist through paid subscriptions, all the more pressing.
“There’s a strong demand for quality journalism,” adds Brunt. “And people are willing to pay for it.”
By “people,” Brunt here means “Americans.” The Economist may enjoy a high degree of recognition on America’s coasts (particularly in the supposedly élite media bubbles of New York and D.C.), but Brunt says North America remains a wildly untapped market for the brand. And while readership across the Atlantic is growing — circulation in the U.S. and Canada actually increased 1.5 percent in the second half of 2016, which saw the aftermath of the UK’s Brexit vote as well as the general election portion of the U.S. presidential campaign — penetration remains low, with an average issue of The Economist read by just 850,000 North Americans across both print and digital editions.
“Our single biggest marketing challenge in the U.S. is awareness,” acknowledges Brunt. “We can’t extend people’s reading time; they have to swap something else out for us.”
Steps taken by Brunt’s team to overcome that hurdle include hiring a “chief customer journey officer” and identifying the specific psychographic factors — socially liberal, fiscally conservative, globally curious — that make someone a potential “Economist reader.” If that sounds like a pretty broad swath of people, it’s because it is; Brunt says his team has identified 132 million such adults around the world, 76 million of which reside in the U.S. and Canada.
To reach them, The Economist is leaving no stone unturned. No longer discriminating between print and digital readers, the pricing model has been overhauled to allow readers to purchase the subscription that best fits their consumption habits. Previously discounted, digital-only subscriptions now cost the same amount as print-only ones ($45 per quarter), with print/digital bundles offered at $55 per quarter — each around 20 percent lower than The Economist‘s UK subscription prices, given the current exchange rate.
“We test out our pricing models on the Canadians,” says Brunt, with a laugh. “They tend to behave similarly.”
Of course, another key to raising the brand’s profile is social media, to which The Economist has dedicated a ten-editor team tasked with maintaining the brand’s social presence and injecting posts with what Brunt calls The Economist’s “signature irreverence and wit.” Posts are continuously tested across Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and beyond for format, language, and images that resonate, and content that gains traction organically is then boosted with paid promotion in an attempt to reach new audiences.
A brand known for in-depth reporting, The Economist has embraced growing demand for shot-form digital communication as well, publishing on the messenger app Line and producing a weekend pop-up channel on Snapchat Discover. The brand’s Espresso app provides smartphone users with daily morning news briefings, with access to more than one article each day offered in exchange for a $2.99 monthly subscription.
Brunt’s team isn’t just looking online, either. If you live in a major U.S. city, it’s highly possible you’ve seen the odd sight of an Economist-branded ice cream truck peddling even odder items like insect-laden ice cream or cricket waffles.
It’s not a hoax; The Economist is seriously feeding people crickets. Rather, it’s a somewhat extreme example of experiential marketing — an offline complement to the brand’s online outreach to potential readers. While adventurous passersby ingest Nutella sprinkled with mealworms, they’re being read excerpts of Economist articles about how the world would be a more sustainable place if people would just get over their pesky phobia of eating bugs — an example of the magazine’s biggest selling point: its unparalleled content.
Attempting to summarize The Economist’s overall philosophy when appealing to its 132 million target readers, Brunt defers to an age-old customer service maxim: “The answer is yes; what is the question?”