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The Economist's Mark Johnson: 'ask for a lot from your community and you'll get a lot in return'

The Economist's Mark Johnson: 'ask for a lot from your community and you'll get a lot in return'

As other prestigious publications struggle to break even in an increasingly harsh economic climate, The Economist announced record profits this year - £63m to be precise. Part of the Economist's growth has been digital. While the Financial Times has around 429,000 Twitter followers, and The Spectator has just under 14,000, The Economist tweets daily to almost 1.2 million people. Likewise, The Economist has over 800,000 Facebook fans compared to The Guardian's 121,000 and The FT's 262,000. There's no doubt that the publication is an online force to be reckoned with.

How does a publication achieve this kind of success? Mark Johnson, who joined the Economist as Community Editor in 2010, talks here about the magazine's policies. Building a community requires ambition and remaining true to your brand, he tells WAN-IFRA, while using social media can be about challenging your readers, not dumbing down your voice.

Johnson will speak at the 18th World Editors Forum in Vienna as part of the panel "How to build a community around your publication".

WAN-IFRA: What is your role as Community Editor of the Economist? Has it changed?

JOHNSON: There are three things that I do: management, evangelising, and development work. On the management front I liaise with our team of moderators to make sure that the daily operation of our community is running effectively. For the evangelizing, a lot of that is talking about why our community is important and encouraging our writers to interact with them. And the third part is the development stuff. So that's thinking about what's next. How can we create a better platform for our community? What kind of community-focused features can we run? And what kind of technical platform do we need to achieve that?

How has that changed? I guess I'm now doing a lot more of the third than the first two. We have decent management systems in place for our community so that's rolling well. We have actually a very community-savvy staff of journalists - they're now far more likely to come to me with ideas than I am to go to them. So there's now a significant focus for me on the strategy and development side of it.

WAN-IFRA: In your opinion, what are the three most important factors in building a community around a publication?

First of all: the ambition. I think it's very easy to fall into the trap of thinking that small communities are necessarily higher quality. In my experience, small communities are really led only by a handful of voices, and indeed, a handful of loud voices can ruin that community. So I feel that the wider and broader your community is, the healthier it is and the more great quality contributions you'll be able to discover and to promote.

The second one would be remain true to your brand. At The Economist we've got quite a distinctive voice and worldview: we write in a certain way and we're keen to maintain that wherever we're publishing. We don't have a particularly chatty Twitter feed, as one example. I think that's not what people expect from us. So the advice is, work out what's distinctive about your brand then work out how you can translate that into social media.

And the third - I guess it's related - don't think that you have to dumb down in order to build a growing community. Our flagship community feature, as an example, is The Economist Debate. That's an Oxford-style online debate which takes a full two weeks to finish. It generates a lot of discussion on our sites and indeed on social media and around the wider web. So the long and the short of it is, if you ask for a lot from your community, you will find that you get a lot in return.

WAN-IFRA: A lot of The Economist's digital content is behind a paywall. Is that an obstacle to building an online community?

Not really for us because we run a metered paywall. Only fairly engaged visitors actually trigger it and a lot of those readers then become subscribers. There's a certain amount that everyone can see without even logging in. And the other point to remember is that we actually keep a lot of the content that's most popular with our community outside of the pay barrier. Things like our online debates, our rapidly growing number of blogs. So no, the paywall has not had any negative impact on our community as far as I can tell.

WAN-IFRA: How does The Economist's online readership compare to that of the printed product?

I think the type of reader is similar. Ultimately, it's the same group of intelligent, intellectually curious people.

I guess one principle difference is that most of our print readers are subscribers and most of the people who use the site are actually not. So a lot of people who come to the site have a knowledge of our brand but maybe only a vague understanding of what we do.

Social media has been extraordinarily successful in introducing our work to intelligent readers, who would never have thought, of their own accord, to type our address into their browser. One of the most common messages that we see on social media sites is "Wow! I never knew that The Economist covered this kind of thing." And that's quite rewarding for us on the community side of things.

WAN-IFRA: The Economist could be described as a niche publication. How does this affect your community strategy?

I don't think it does particularly affect our strategy; it simply reconfirms to us how great the opportunity is. We have a niche readership and can also, therefore, attract a niche community of intelligent, curious, knowledgeable people. Perhaps the kind of people who aren't normally tempted to contribute to website communities.

If that affects our strategy I guess it's that we're fanatical about making it really easy for people to participate, because we want to attract busy people who don't have much time, energy or experience to wrestle with websites.

WAN-IFRA: The Economist has a number of "debate and discuss" interactive features. How have readers responded and which have proved most popular?

The debates are worth mentioning. They run for about two weeks, they have a proposer and an opposer, who are experts in the field, and have special guests who chime in. There are also comments from the floor. Those have been very successful. I think it's common to say that the social media world and the community world only really appreciate short pieces of content and I think the success of our debates on those platforms has proven that isn't true.

We also have something called 'By Invitation', which allows us to pose a question, at the moment to a group 50 economists, who chime in on what they think about our question each week. We enable our readers to leave comments on their contributions and discuss with those experts what's going on in the world of economics. That's very popular as well.

And I think our blogs have been especially popular. We now have about a dozen blogs that have grown steadily over the last 18 months and they are hugely popular with our community.

One other thing that works really well for us is our daily chart. Every day our research department put together a chart or an infographic based on the day's news events and that performs extremely well, on social media especially.

WAN-IFRA: I've read that The Economist used digital analytics very successfully as part of its social media strategy. What's the best way to approach user data?

On the web there is a huge amount of data available to you and it's careless for you not to pay attention to it. So our social media strategy is always informed by looking closely at data, working out when are the best times to post, when are the best times to post particular types of content, what's the right amount of content to post every day. Those are the kinds of things that you can find out and it's careless not to do that.

Photo credit: Philippa Gedge Photography



Hannah Vinter


2011-09-30 11:41

The World Editors Forum is the organization within the World Association of Newspapers devoted to newspaper editors worldwide. The Editors Weblog (www.editorsweblog.org), launched in January 2004, is a WEF initiative designed to facilitate the diffusion of information relevant to newspapers and their editors.

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