“We’re focusing on the subscription economy” – Subrata Mukherjee, VP of Product at The Economist

By Aarthi Rayapura June 16, 2016

The battle for audience attention is raging in the publishing industry. It’s no longer just a question of competing with other publications but also about competing with the likes of Facebook, Hulu and Spotify in the mobile space. Subrata Mukherjee, Vice-President of Product for The Economist spoke at our annual conference Subscribed this year on the publication’s innovative approach to acquire and retain readers:

Subrata-Mukherjee

Is print dead at The Economist?
We are seeing some things that are counter-intuitive to common thinking around this issue. Our print business is flat in certain markets but growing in others. So, we wouldn’t say that print is dead and want to move everybody to digital. A lot of surveys have shown us that young people are using The Economist’s content to prepare for debates, school, etc. They actually prefer an immersive print experience and don’t want the distractions of a Twitter feed or an Instagram feed coming up.

How is The Economist trying to stand out from all the noise in the digital sphere?
Typically, if you’ve engaged with The Economist’s content, you’ll see that a lot of what we offer is analysis and deep insights. If you notice carefully, you’ll also see that we don’t mention the writer’s name. To be honest, it’s not just the outside world, but even internally, we don’t know who wrote what. That gives the writers complete independence and editorial integrity. there.” In our case, the editorial team doesn’t even report up to the CEO but report up to a separate board. This editorial independence is why our content is valued so much and why people are willing to pay for it.

Can you tell us a little about The Economist’s acquisition strategies?
As everybody knows advertising revenue is not sustainable anymore. We’re focusing on the subscription economy and have innovated a lot in our subscription business over the last 5 years.

A lot of companies talk about product bundling these days. We actually went the other way and unbundled some of our products to experiment with new options. We want to put up unique bundles by mixing content and services (conferences and other events). We are also trying to do a massive re-platforming of all of our customer experience ecosystem products.

A lot of publications give away digital for free if you have a print subscription. Around 3 years ago, we decided to take out that model and pilot a premium model wherein we offered a print and digital package. The idea was to increase our renewal subscription revenue by making people opt for the print and digital package rather than the print-only package. So, instead of giving it away for free, we are actually starting to charge a premium for it.

We’re trying to see if really small niche products have a market. For example, we are trying out offering products in different languages such as a global business review app in Chinese. We’ve also started tinkering with smaller products like the Espresso daily app which is reasonably successful and growing.

What challenges are you facing?
The challenge had been that we did not have a platform which allowed us to create and experiment these products very quickly. The last time we attempted something like that with our different partners, it took us quite a few months. And often, the market moves on. In certain cases, you have to experiment with a really low budget. Fail fast and move onto your next idea. We’ve studied different markets and seen that actually providing a local experience in language and payment options will actually increase your conversions.

A lot of these things we are now able to experiment with using a modern CMS and the Zuora platform. Everything is on the cloud and allows us to have the flexibility to scale our infrastructure.

Speaking of content monetization, tell us a little about your metered access approach.
We provide metered access and very soon we’re going to use data to have a dynamic paywall. We believe that a one-size-fits-all pay wall and a metered access may not work. We want to offer different packages for different regions and different countries. We are also trying to counter things such as ad blockers and try different models of free trials in new or emerging markets. A good platform will allow you to actually feed in data, and based on that data create a dynamic site mix that’s going to drive the paywall.

With so much change, are you thinking differently about managing your customer relationships?

You have to nurture relationships so that these customers remain life-long customers. Not only do we look at acquisition offers and renewal offers, we also plan to invest in mid-term upgrades, and consistently cross-sell different complementary products and services.

Don’t over-market to people and annoy them, but instead look for opportunities through customer service. When somebody calls to change their address, put a vacation hold, etc, that’s a time that you’ve got them engaged. Use those opportunities.

Encourage extensions and win-back campaigns for recently expired subscription offers. We have targeted renewal offers, smooth one-click offers, etc. It’s all about making the customer experience very smooth, so that you spend less time worrying about your subscription, and more time engaging with your content and actually feel you get value out of it.

There are also things such as membership clubs and gift-giving programs that we plan to try out. In addition, we’re looking at personalized content hubs and content alerts. All of these are to nurture and allow customers to extract more value. Lastly, we’re going to do all we can to clearly acknowledge the readers’ association with us and show we value them.

For more, check out the deck from Mukherjee’s panel ‘The Battle for Audience Attention’ and our guide on the Strategies for Newspaper Readership Growth.