How The Economist plays the platform game

How do you recruit new subscribers - especially young ones? For The Economist, social platforms are a big part of the equation…

Adam Tinworth
Adam Tinworth

Another set of liveblogged notes from Digital Media Europe 2017. Typos, inaccuracy and howling crimes against grammar and syntax probable.

James Waddell, social media writer at The Economist.

James Waddell, social media writer at The Economist

In print, The Economist skews older and male. Online is ¾ under 45, and 22% are women. Why do these demographics matter? Print advertising revenue is in pretty drastic declines as slice of revenue. That means that revenue from subscribers has become much more important – and thus that the newspaper can no longer rely on a small, rich demographic.

Their focus is on subscriber growth – and that means that they use social platforms to recruit new subscribers. They are a means to an end, rather than an end in of themselves.

Waddell is very clear that it’s not his job to convert – it’s his job to create the funnel end. And then it’s the (completely separate) marketing team’s job to take the audience he builds and turn them into subscribers.

The strategy seems to be pretty simple: who do we want to reach? Where can we reach them? For example, Line has been a major factor in reaching new audiences in Asia.

How about their presence on Snapchat? What 16 year old on Snapchat is going to read the Economist? Well, they’re better aligned than you might think, suggests Waddell – forwards-looking with a bias towards major international issues. The presence there is a long game – get them into the ecosystem and show them what we can do. And somewhere down the line they might become subscribers.

Economist, Medium rare

Why is The Economist on Medium?

They’re not expecting it to drive hordes of new subscribers – but it’s a great place to run experiments. They have to prove the ideas before you get them on It’s a sandbox for innovation.

Three driving ideas:

Authenticity: on Medium they run bylined pieces where correspondents can get something off their chests. For example, this piece on Mike Pence’s dining habits. They’ve also got a Spotlight stand – picking up on issues important to Millennials, while showcasing other writing they have.

Transparency: The ecosystem behind The Economist is unique – show they show it off via Medium, exploring how the magazine is made.

Interactivity: They’re asking readers to participate in the creation of stories. It’s a win:win – cogent research and readers becoming part of the conversation. They’re struggled with comments on the website – but on Medium, they’ve had a really, really positive response.

They’re not trying to drive huge subs from Medium – but they are the second most followed publication on the platform already.


Again, as seems to be a theme at this conference, there’s nothing revolutionary here – just great execution of well-known ideas. We’ve been talking about using blogging to expose the inner workings of our titles since the early 2000s, for example. It’s great to see The Economist going back to that idea in a really sensible way. And I couldn’t help but admire Waddell’s push back against members of the audience who really wanted to hear that content was being repurposed across channels. Creating for the channel is simple more effective.

My one concern: the strict division between the social editorial team and the marketing team. If the purpose behind the content is (eventually) converting readers, that aim is likely to be better met by a more involved dialogue between the two parts, and that will make the editorial choices more sustainable. Amedia’s example later in the day was a great example of that.

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Adam is a lecturer, trainer and writer. He's been a blogger for over 20 years, and a journalist for more than 30. He lectures on audience strategy and engagement at City, University of London.