Experiments

The Economist's Mark Johnson encourages others to experiment beyond the main social media platforms

Credit: By Horia Varlan on Flickr. Some rights reserved.
The Economist is celebrating 170 years since its first edition hit the presses in September 1843.

And while the newspaper remains committed to its founding mantra "to take part in a severe contest between intelligence, which presses forward, and an unworthy, timid ignorance obstructing our progress", its efforts to do so are of course no longer limited to print.

The Economist website recently recorded "around 1.6 million" monthly unique US visitors, according to a Mashable report which cited ComScore statistics, while its continental Europe digital edition secured the highest circulation for a magazine digital edition in the first half of 2013, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulation. The Economist also offers audio editions and a number of weekly podcasts.

And it has also embraced the social web, with active engagement on a number of platforms, from Twitter and Facebook, through to Google+ and Tumblr – with experiments on Reddit also under its belt.

"For a long time [social] has been one of the fastest growing sources of new traffic to the website," community editor Mark Johnson told Journalism.co.uk.

The newspaper takes a thought-out approach to its social media strategy, in a way which serves both its existing audience and reaches out to potential new readers, while at all times keeping its brand values at the core of its activities.

In this feature Johnson outlines seven key aspects of The Economist's approach on social media, which the news outlet has found to be successful so far.

1. Carrying out 'editorial events'

Returning to that early Economist mantra: "to take part in a severe contest between intelligence, which presses forward, and an unworthy, timid ignorance obstructing our progress", Johnson highlighted how this idea of debate is very much suited to the social web.

As such, The Economist likes to run "editorial events" on social platforms, from Q&A discussions on Twitter to monthly Google + Hangouts, both bringing together the newspaper's journalists and readers for valuable conversation. At the time of writing The Economist has 3.7 million Twitter followers to its main account (@TheEconomist), and almost 4.6 million on Google+.

We think the way we use social media ought to be to encourage discussion, debate, and that fits very well with what the paper's forMark Johnson, The Economist
"We think the way we use social media ought to be to encourage discussion, debate, and that fits very well with what the paper's for," Johnson explained.

And these activities work in tandem with its own platforms. The Twitter Q&A for example – which is called Ask The Economist – is also embedded on The Economist's website. And by doing this, the activities do not just work in terms of engaging with audiences across web platforms, but also in a business sense.

"We can feature advertising around it and actually make some money," Johnson explained.

2. Experimenting with new platforms

While on the subject of Twitter and Google+, Johnson also spoke about the importance of "being promiscuous and persevering" when it comes to trying out new social platforms and tools.

He said while some were skeptical about Google+, for example, it has only taken "a little bit of effort" to build its community of millions which exists today.

"At the moment that gives us only really a fraction of the value that we're getting from our work on some of the other sites, but it doesn't take a lot to keep it ticking over," he said.

"And you never quite know when these are going to really start returning some reward for the work."

The Economist has around 100,000 followers on Tumblr, "which is not a huge amount but it's a start and a foothold in something we can build on", Johnson said.

He advises others to branch out beyond Facebook and Twitter. Although there can be a learning curve, as The Economist (among others) is finding with Reddit, where it has run a successful Ask Me Anything with digital editor Tom Standage (more detail on that here), but is looking to do more.

"You need a much more sophisticated strategy to get the most out of Reddit," Johnson explained. "We're still learning how to do that."

3. Adopting a platform-specific approach

And while The Economist tries to acquaint itself with an array of social media platforms, it adopts "a tailored approach to each", Johnson said, not just in terms of the content, but also how it is shared, such as frequency.

"Posting very frequently on Twitter gives you a better response than posting very frequently on Facebook," he explained.

"On Facebook we've found that sometimes quality over quantity makes a difference, mostly because of the algorithms I think. So you need to be versatile in that respect."

I think using tools sensibly is fundamental to having a successful social strategyMark Johnson, The Economist
Using different tools can help you achieve the best results on different platforms. The Economist, for example, uses SocialFlow, to assist its Twitter activities. The tool is also used by other news outlets, such as the New York Times, as its social media editor Michael Roston explained in this Journalism.co.uk feature.

"I think using tools sensibly is fundamental to having a successful social strategy," Johnson said.

As well as helping the newspaper by "allowing us to create drafts of tweets from RSS feeds", SocialFlow is also used for social media optimisation, organising when is the best time to send out which tweets.

4. Using social analytics effectively

When it comes to understanding the best approaches to take on different social platforms, Johnson highlighted the importance of referring to social analytics and "the impact of changes that we make", to ensure any decisions are well-informed.

This previous Journalism.co.uk feature looks at how newsrooms use social media analytics, and similarly The Economist pays "rigorous attention to data", Johnson said.

"More to the point, we test everything," he added, using the example of finding the optimum length of Facebook posts.

"We ran some experiments to see whether short posts, medium posts or long posts, in terms of the number of words, were the most effective at getting people to engage with us in one way or another," he said.

"We found that very short ones and fairly long ones worked much better than anything that was just in between, anything that was just two or three sentences long.

"Those are the kinds of things that you can only work out if you pay close attention to the data and are prepared to experiment quite analytically with what you do."

The Economist measures a range of social media metrics, although Johnson said that "traditionally we've kept a careful eye on the number of referrals to our own website", based on page views.

"That is an important reason why we're on social media, to introduce more people to what we do on our own site," he explained.

The newspaper is also interested in the different types of interaction on social platforms, such as likes and comments on Facebook.

Johnson explained that this is important because "the kind of interactions you're getting on the site make a big difference in the number of times the Facebook algorithm shows your posts to your community".

"So you can't afford to ignore that any more, if you were ever ignoring it before."

But not all metrics are necessarily worth getting "hung up about", he added, referring to follower counts.

"People like to quote them but it doesn't mean that much, because you don't know how many of those are fake accounts or how many of them are just lapsed users."

5. A 'dual strategy' using sub-accounts

The Economist uses a "dual strategy" on Twitter, in order to add creativity in a way which does not take away from the impact of its main account.

This means that @TheEconomist focuses more on the sending out of links to the newspaper's content, while a series of "sub-accounts" have been created where the newspaper is "a bit more creative".

"Those are the places where you'll see us replying to people, or getting involved in conversations, or linking out externally to blogs that aren't just ours," Johnson said.

He said when, on occasion, they have been slightly more "creative" on the main account, they have received some negative feedback.

"The people who are following us there, they know what they want to get out of it. They want to get frequent, well-written links to things that we've written. They don't necessarily want us to be incredibly creative with how we do that".

6. Staying true to the brand

The Economist is passionate about ensuring its brand values remain reflected in all its activities across platforms.

The internet is a competitive place for newspapers and for magazines, but nowhere is more competitive than social media, when you really are all fighting it out for attention on one user's dashboardMark Johnson, The Economist
"One thing that we've learnt, and one thing I'd recommend, is not to dumb down," Johnson advised, "not to try and be something different, or something that you're not".

"The internet is a competitive place for newspapers and for magazines, but nowhere is more competitive than social media, when you really are all fighting it out for attention on one user's dashboard.

"What's going to be successful is stuff that's distinctive, stuff that's very different from anything else, and I think one of the reasons The Economist has been successful is because the brand itself is very distinctive, both in the way it writes about things and the topics that it covers."

Speaking at a conference in Italy earlier this year, Johnson also stressed this point, encouraging others to "find out what it is people love about them, then work out how to convert that onto social networks".

7. Creating content with social in mind

The Economist also looks for opportunities to create "new, social-friendly content" on its website, he said, which will still appeal to its regular readers.

One example he gave was the popularity of its Graphic Detail blog's daily chart, which then prompted the idea for The Economist Explains blog, which offers readers a short answer to what the blog describes as "topical and timeless" questions.

"That's an example of something which works for our current audience but which we also know will work well on social media," Johnson said.

"So it doesn't compromise what The Economist is, it actually just extends our reach."

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