“Without knowing who our customers are … we cannot serve them.”

November 14, 2016

173 years. That’s how long The Economist has been around. As the digital era takes over, the media house is making significant changes—both externally and internally—to cater to the changing market scenario.

Aarthi Rayapura caught up with Subrata Mukherjee, VP of Product and Head of Business Systems at The Economist Group to learn more about the publication’s transformation into a modern media company.

Is print dead at The Economist?
We are seeing some trends that are counter-intuitive to common thinking around this issue. Many renowned print titles have been closing shop or are being sold at ridiculous prices. Our print business is not declining—it’s flat in certain markets and growing slightly in others. Some focus groups have shown us that young college students are using The Economist’s content to prepare for debates, case studies, quizzes, etc. They actually prefer an immersive print experience and don’t want the distractions of feeds from social networks or instant messengers.

So 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. In fact, our editorial team doesn’t even report to the CEO, but reports to a separate board. This editorial independence is why our content is valued so much and why people are willing to pay for it.

Has the relationship The Economist has with its customers changed over time? Do you view your digital and print subscribers differently?
We do not treat any of our customers differently. Our goal is to wow readers with a truly cross-platform immersive content experience and we encourage readers to explore digital experiences that they have not yet tried. We have gradually started to launch digital-only content such as the Espresso app or the Global Business Review Chinese app. Our premium bundles are also very popular, showing that our customers also support our cross-platform initiatives.

Are you diversifying your revenue streams? How and why are you betting on these new streams?
As part of our subscription business we are looking at niche apps like our Espresso, World in 2016 and Global Business Review apps. We have recently rebranded our bi-monthly magazine Intelligent Life to 1843, which is the year when The Economist was born. We are looking to ramp up our B2B offers to corporates, academic institutes, and nonprofit and government organizations. We are also looking to cross-sell products from our sister companies like EIU, CQ Roll Call and our events and conference businesses.

Any other examples of novel acquisition strategies?
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).
A lot of publications give away digital for free if you have a print subscription. Around three 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.
Apart from the other apps I talked about, we are also trying our Paywall 2.0 strategy which will allow us to drop more casual readers into the subscription funnel in a variety of creative ways. We’re also going to explore providing subscription offers to those who have ad blockers. We are trying to attract students, provide opportunities for frequent fliers to use their air miles,and are also looking at other reward membership programs.

What role does subscriber data play in your growth strategy?
Data is central to our transformation strategy. Creating a 360-degree-view of the customer is key to our strategy. Without knowing who our customers are, what they prefer, what they do—we cannot serve them. Our general philosophy is that data output from one platform needs to be an input to one or more other platforms. Else, we would question why we are tracking that data element. Data is useful for personalizing content, subscription offers, paywalls, and newsletters.

What about advertising related data? With ad revenues declining, how are you making up for it?
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 five years. On the media front, we have also started looking at sponsorships and co-branded content (like our GE Look ahead hub) as additional revenue sources.

The Economist has made a conscious decision to transform itself into what we at Zuora call a “modern media company.” And at the forefront of your transition has been the CASE (Customer-Access- Subscription-Ecommerce) Digital Transformation project. Can you tell us a little about the project, its goals, and where it stands today?

The CASE project is one of the biggest technology undertakings in the history of our company. The project has five work
streams undertaken by a cross-functional team of marketing, finance, technology, business analysts, and project managers. The work streams are (a) Sales Management and Ecommerce (b) Access, Entitlements, and Paywalls (c) Subscription Management and Revenue Management (d) CRM and Customer Service (e) Data Migration, Business Intelligence, and Reporting.

The general goal is to improve our customer experience, increase buyer flow conversions, increase time to market,
enable our ability to easily cross-sell, and to provide predictable access control to readers. We have almost completed
the Ecommerce track, closely followed by the other streams in the coming months.

Can you briefly describe your technology stack and how it has evolved to serve your transformation?
The CASE platform has Salesforce sales, service, and marketing cloud as a central hub with other products hanging off
it. The other products that were added to the ecosystem are eZ Publish as the CMS and Ecommerce platform, Zuora as
the subscription management and billing platform, Gluu as a single sign-on platform, CyberSource for credit card payments, GoCardless for direct debit, GBG for address and email validation, Piano for paywall, and they are all connected by MuleSoft’s cloud service hub.

What are some of the challenges you’ve faced along the way?
The challenge had been that we did not have a platform which allowed us to create and experiment with new 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. The main challenge we faced when we got started with CASE was actually driving simplicity. This challenge is also closely linked to cultural challenges, where organizations undergoing transformation also face internal “resistance to change.” Instead of rebuilding all the business processes we currently have, the goal was to simplify those
same processes, focus on the broader objectives, and keep the products in the ecosystem as out-of-the-box as possible. That would not only keep development costs low, but also keep longer term support and upgrade costs low.

Thank you for the insightful chat, Subrata!
Thank you.

Continue reading other highlights from the Subscribed Magazine! And also learn how Zuora’s subscription management software helps publishers such as The Guardian and The Financial Times .