A publication is meant to be read. We’re in the habit of thinking this way. This is how it has been done for thousands of years—since 59 B.C., when the first papyrus newspaper hit doorsteps in Rome. While most people do still consume their favorite publications this way, you may have heard just a little bit about the fact that more of us are now also engaging through video, podcasts, apps, even virtual reality. Just 56 percent of those who consume a newspaper read it exclusively in print, according to a Nielsen Scarborough report. Eleven percent also read it on computers; five percent on mobile; and another 11 percent in print, on desktop, and on mobile.
Many of the publishers still standing amongst us are adjusting to this change, but the wisest are those that shored themselves up against the industry-wide decline in circulation and ad revenue by spreading their ever-evolving content across channels and their marketing across platforms. This change of plans has had to be quick—no time to mourn what used to be. By giving a readership more ways to enjoy a publication, to know it and become loyal to it, publishers have gained an amazing opportunity to increase reach and find new audiences.
To broaden The Economist’s reach, we looked to the top distribution platforms—not just for help, but also to set an example. It became evident really quickly that everyone from Apple to Facebook was thinking about the same thing—really great content. Yet, the question that has come to many publishers’ minds lately is: Do we make all of this really great content free, dump it everywhere, and just hope that people will then convert to paid subscribers? Do we make money by maximizing revenue per user or by maximizing the number of users we reach, understanding that advertisers are looking for scale?
Because the scale for much larger publishers is very different than the scale for The Economist, we have chosen to approach the question a bit differently, putting a great deal of focus on content that makes sense for our audience here. Today, this is as much about the content itself as how it’s presented. We want the audience to consume our content in whichever manner they want to and to grow our reach naturally—this led to the creation of our “read, watch, listen” (RWL) content strategy. Thanks to this approach, whether people want to read our content, watch our content, or listen to our content, we’ve got them covered.
"Read" is divided into three categories—our print edition, our digital apps and our websites. Within each of these categories is content that fits variously within the model. "Listen" covers streaming as well as podcasts, but I’ll admit we’ve lately been giving a larger share of our attention to “Watch,” simply because there are so many opportunities to take advantage of here—from streaming to syndication to broadcasting, from YouTube to Amazon Fire TV. Augmented reality and virtual reality also fall under this category, and though they might be the easiest to dismiss as inessential or a “thing of the future,” the arrival of Samsung’s $99 Gear VR headset (powered by Facebook's Oculus) and T-Mobile offering a free headset with pre-order of Samsung S7 devices are evidence to the contrary. Experts predict that it will take about four years for the VR market to really take off. In the meantime, we’ll be ready.
As The Economist’s SVP of strategy and channel relationships, my role is to ensure that all of our partners have a point of contact so we have an open line of communication. It is also about staying on the pulse of what’s coming up next that should deserve our attention. I work amongst a very unique and talented global cross functional group including editorial, films, and digital solutions. This collaboration allows for remarkable efficiencies and success in our initiatives.
We’ve come to believe that a publication cannot survive by keeping all of its content to itself—meaning, on its own site and/or apps. Technology partnerships are proving essential to our industry’s present and our future, giving us a reach that we could never achieve on our own. Yet, with all of these distribution platforms to choose from, many things remain up for debate: Which platform works best for which content? What is the right amount of free content? What are the right KPI for each platform? There’s not a clear answer yet to any of that. But one thing is very clear for me—publications cannot go about business as usual and expect to remain read, watched, heard—and relevant.