The Digital Anthropologist: Paul Rossi on The Economist’s Modern Intelligence

Paul Rossi’s magazine The Economist is a success story in a world strewn with the corpses of publishing icons. This story appeared in The Advertising Technology Review in 2013.

There is a fine line, in publishing, between the accessible and the vapid: this is a line that The Economist does not intend to walk, says Sir Paul Rossi, the magazine’s publisher.

The Economist, now in its 170th year, must solve a contemporary marketing puzzle, said Rossi, “not a content problem.”

That puzzle—the ever-looming specter of a savage contest between content and revenue— is one which has been tangled with by the likes of The New York Times, The Washington Post, and fatally, the print version of Newsweek Magazine, which ceased publication in 2012.

However, long before it was famously trumpeted that print was dead, The Economist had developed a forward-looking business model which would preserve the integrity of its brand across multiple platforms while pursing an aggressive, ROI-driven growth strategy.

However, long before it was famously trumpeted that print was dead, The Economist had developed a forward-looking business model

“One of the things which has become increasingly obvious is that because of Big Data and the abundance of inventory we are living in a world of declining CPMs,” said Rossi in 2012.

“Where your business is wholly dependent on advertising, ” Rossi continued, “you will have to keep adjusting your business model to keep the revenues going- in the long run, that’s not particularly sustainable.”

Unlike publishers laboring under a click-centric business model, The Economist focuses on driving subscriptions with content that is data-driven in its curation— the old-fashioned way.

“We’ve always had a business built around paid content,” said Rossi, so the focus of the magazine online and offline has always been about user experience and sustaining user engagement.

Unlike publishers laboring under a click-centric business model, The Economist focuses on driving  subscriptions with content—the old-fashioned way

Relevant, quality content, according to Rossi, is naturally targeted towards a high-value audience: open-minded, intellectually curious readers willing to explore new ideas and products regardless of how or on which platform that content appears.

He sees no need to switch to a celebrities and shock model that has become the rule of the day in many British publications.

This is not to say that The Economist does not cover pop culture. The Economist’s take on everything— ranging from pop stars to unfortunately named politicians with a predilection for cyber-stripping— attempts to bridge the gap between the mirthless world of critical analysis and the pop-candy-strewn world of gossip and celebrity tattle tales.

That content strategy has built The Economist’s readership and online audience into a formidable force of 1.5 million paid subscribers as of March 2012, with an average net worth of $1,666,0000 and a household income of $250,000.

The company’s strict emphasis on high-quality content, however, creates its own dilemma when multi-platform distribution brings the brand in direct competition with online publishers prone to put sizzle and shock at the forefront of a headline-driven, click-obsessed marketing model.

Rossi stated that the magazine’s formula doesn’t change across platforms—there’s no vacillation on the magazine’s compilation of the weekly parade of “50 things that matter” which details each news item’s broader relevance to the readership.

“We won’t change the brand or the value proposition according to technology,” said Rossi. “We like that there is significant value in what we do, especially in the age of mass information overload.”

The company’s strict emphasis on high-quality content brings the brand in direct competition with online publishers prone to put sizzle at the forefront of a headline-driven, click-obsessed marketing model.

Naturally, publications with a vociferously loyal and growing fan base need not worry about watering down content to the familiar online formula of a universally palatable soup of quips and gossip. The magazine, instead, says Rossi, should be viewed as a resource for the “intellectually curious.”

That emphasis on intelligent inquiry molds the magazine’s marketing strategy as well- ranging from print to online to  digital-out-of-home advertising.

Rossi stated that America represents a major marketing push for the brand. A large part of their marketing plan, developed by BBDO, is a blend of cheeky British humor and an open appeal to the audience’s sense of adventure.

Rossi states that rather than battle the notion that The Economist is a journal which, true its name, draws its topics solely from the realm of finance, The Economist’s campaign focuses on the magazine’s all-encompassing overview of world affairs- challenging potential readers to take their brains “out for a spin.”

A large part of their marketing plan, developed by BBDO, is a blend of cheeky British humor and an open appeal to the audience’s sense of adventure.

Unfortunately, for many venerable publications, good content is often not enough to stay afloat, never mind grow paid subscriptions.

The Washington Post, for example, struggled for decades before being bought by Jeff Bezos. Donald Graham, the Washington Post’s CEO conceded in a public letter that the company’s slow growth and even attempts to innovate online were not enough to defeat the drag of its troubled print business.

Despite the risks, The Economist’s marketing strategy attempts to kindle a national debate about the value of debate itself.

The idea that America is an intellectual wasteland save for a few hamlets near Ivy League universities and major cities is laughable, according to Rossi.

The Economist’s marketing strategy attempts to kindle a national debate about the value of debate itself.

There is a market in America for rich, curated, intellectual discussion, Rossi believes, and The Economist aims to unearth it.

Despite the fact that America’s airwaves are replete with ideologues and flesh-baring reality shows, Rossi is confident that America’s reputation as not being as open to intellectual inquiry as France, for example, is undeserved.

“Americans are intellectually curious, they are open to new ideas,” one cannot, said Rossi, accept the stereotype that cerebral analysis and international affairs are exclusively the interests of American scholars and politicians.

Rossi believes that The Economist’s average consumer engagement time online has near parity with their reported offline reading times because the content isn’t metrics or ad-centric.

There is a market in America for rich, curated, intellectual discussion, Rossi believes, and The Economist aims to unearth it.

“The technology is a bookend,” Rossi said, noting that the goal, whether through the app or the blogs, is to offer a “lean-back reading experience”. “We want to be really clear about the reader engagement proposition- why people pick the magazine up and spend their money for it.” Readers subscribe to content, Rossi said, not platforms or formats.

The Takeaway:
Publishing brands build engagement and lasting readership growth through lean-back content, not headline-driven clicks. A sustainable business model for any publisher requires that the company’s value proposition remains effortlessly obvious: content should be original, valuable to the reader, and of sufficient depth to bring the reader back a second time.

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