Once upon a time, people may have stereotyped of The Economist as a dry, formal publication, which aged company executives would leaf through in their dusty studies. But if those days ever existed, they are certainly confined to the past now.
The international magazine currently has over 100,000 digital-only subscribers and more than a million monthly mobile readers. Economist readers have downloaded more than 3 million apps since their launch and online traffic has grown by 45% since September of last year. The publication now has 7 million online users.
These figures were reported in the interim financial report released by The Economist Group today, which shows a run of spectacular success for the publication. The report announces a 6% year-on-year rise in operating profits, totaling £26.2 million, and a revenue increase of 4%, to £164.3 million.
In the report, Economist Chairman Rupert Pennant-Rea remarks on the positive uptake of The Economist on new media, saying that "the demand for digital editions have exceeded our expectations". But the success story also translates to print: circulation of the print edition increased 3% in the first half of 2011, compared to the same period last year (maybe some of those executives are still leafing?).
The success wasn't quite uniform globally: the group sold an increased amount of advertising in American and Asia, but advertising remained the same in the Middle East, Africa and Continental Europe and declined in the UK. And despite a justifiably positive attitude overall, Pennant-Rea ends on a note of caution: "All this encouraging news needs to be set against the near certainty of tougher times to come".
Still, this measured tone seems to make The Economist's success in a harsh media climate all the more striking. So what's the secret?
Company CEO Andrew Rashbass told Guardian journalist Roy Greenslade on Sunday that much of it was down to "extraordinary luck": as an international, English-language magazine, The Economist has benefited from the rise of English as a global language. But again, this sounds like modesty. There are plenty of other international, English-language publications that haven't fared as well.
Greenslade writes that reliable, quality content is also a key factor, noting "the magazine can boast that it forecast the downfall of Egypt's Hosni Mubarak as early as July 2010." Likewise, when Silvio Berlusconi stepped down as Italian Prime Minister this month, Economist journalist Greg Ip was able to link to a series of Economist front covers and tweet "we told you so".
But does this entirely explain the magazine's digital success? In his interview with Rashbass, Greenslade also pins down three key factors not directly to do with the magazine's editorial content.
First is The Economist's immersive tablet application, which doesn't require scrolling, caches downloaded versions, features interactive ads and has an audio function that reads articles out loud.
Second is the magazine's community-based approach to its web platforms, which avoids "lecturing the audience" in favour of creating conversation.
And third is the wisdom to distinguish between these two digital platforms. Rashbass says that the tablet is a "lean-back, immersive, ritual pleasure", like a printed magazine, whereas engages readers in a "lean-forward, interactive" experience online.
Rashbass sees the difference as that of "snacking on the net as against the gourmet meal of reading in print." And understanding this distinction seems to have helped him keep serving up exactly what Economist readers want.
Economist digital editor Tom Standage has written to us with some comments about the magazine's digital approach. Like Rashbass, he emphasizes the importance of distinguishing between digital strategy on the web and on tablets and smartphones. He also notes that, as the media environment becomes "noisier", there's a market for publications that summarise and explain what's important. It seems that the Economist has got in there to fill that demand.
Read Standage's full comments here:
"Our digital strategy has been to take the values of The Economist in print and extend them to digital platforms. On the web that means debate and discussion, and participating in the conversation of the blogosphere; on tablets and smartphones that means delivering analysis of the week's events in a compact form that, crucially, can be finished.
Arranging the content in our apps like the print edition, rather than like a website, means readers can bring their reading habits from the print edition, and the app immediately feels comfortable and familiar. (We know that many readers like to start with a particular section, and then read other sections in a specific order.) I think this is one reason -- along with speed and simplicity -- why our apps have been so well received by existing readers.
These new platforms also allow us to reach new readers easily. In an era when the media environment is noisier than ever, there would seem to be demand for a publication that acts as a filter, summarising and explaining what is important. (The Week also benefits from this.)
Finally, tablet users seem to be particularly keen on reading text, and for long periods, as the recent Pew survey found. That, rather than bells and whistles, is what our apps provide, and what our readers seem to want. (The New Yorker is another beneficiary of this trend; its app is also doing well.)"