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What The Economist’s move into education can teach other publishers

June 9, 2022 | By Esther Kezia Thorpe – Independent Media Reporter @EstherKeziaT

Education may not be an obvious segue for a news publisher. But when you look more closely, it can actually be an incredibly powerful way to leverage the expertise of journalists to create something valuable for your audience (and bottom line). The Economist launched its Executive Education pillar in February 2021 as a growth initiative that would allow it to leverage its journalists’ deep knowledge and understanding of global issues. 

The education sector itself is vast, and there are many routes publishers could take, from accredited courses to partnerships with schools and universities. The Economist decided to focus on its existing audience, and tailor its courses at highly qualified senior executives. “We’re already catering to the needs of mid-career executives who are upskilling, and that’s our target audience for our courses,” explained Fionnuala Duggan, Executive Director of Education at The Economist Group Media.

“We chose a format for a course and topics that would resonate well with them and at the level they were looking for. The whole operation is pitched to their needs in terms of their ongoing executive development, corporate professional development and career development.”  

Now, they are expanding their offering with a new course on fintech and the future of finance. Billed as giving attendees a “future-focused view of the major issues”, the aim is to demystify personal fintech, blockchain, and cryptocurrencies. Notably, the program will draw in implications for both the business and personal lives rather than being solely work-related.

Quality not quantity

Each course runs for an average of six weeks, and requires between 6-8 hours a week from participants. They are delivered online, which was a pre-pandemic decision to widen participation to a global audience. Courses contain a mix of writing, infographics, video, audio and links. Each is led by a head tutor alongside a team of tutors who guide students through each week. 

The Economist decided to take a guided approach with scheduled start and end dates rather than run on-demand courses because it offered a higher quality experience. Having tutors that can answer questions, stimulate discussion and provide feedback helps participants get more out of the courses, which underpins the value of the four-figure price tag. 

Duggan also noted that having a schedule means they can bring participants together. “There are around 72 countries represented in most courses,” she said. “If you’re discussing something like international relations with people from the U.S., Australia and central Asia, you get all these different perspectives. There’s an enormous amount of learning from each other.”

Although the courses may run to schedule, they are far from being one-hit wonders. The first course Economist Education ran was on International Relations, which is now on its sixth presentation. “Each of these courses takes quite a long time to develop — four or five months,” Duggan said. “That’s why we have a smaller number of courses that are high quality.”

Blending journalism and pedagogy

One key part of the publisher’s approach has been separating the focus of this pillar from the rest of the business. Although there is a great deal of collaboration between the departments, their approach is different. “We’re not in the media business,” Duggan said. “We’re in the business of education. But we’ve benefited enormously from all the things that The Economist and The Economist Group has.”

This has also meant the team are able to acknowledge what strengths they don’t have within the business. Duggan was cognizant of the fact that The Economist had never run courses before, and that this needed additional expertise in order to meet audience expectations. They chose to partner with GetSmarter, an EdTech firm who deliver online education from world-leading universities like Harvard and Cambridge. 

“We really wanted these courses to be from The Economist, so that they would be able to carry over people’s expectations journalistically, and also bring the coverage into the courses,” Duggan explained. “At the same time, the journalists aren’t teachers. So we’ve found a really cool way of blending what they’re able to bring with the pedagogical expertise that our partner has.”

“This means we have this very constructive, collaborative relationship with the journalists and all of the knowledge and knowhow and context they bring. Our editorial processes are also involved clearly in the editing of the course. And then we bring in the pedagogical experts who can shape the course, and we have the best of both sides.”

Duggan’s advice for other publishers is to focus on getting the proposition right, and partner up if necessary. “For a media brand to go into education, it’s very important to execute very well,” said Duggan. “But it’s also important to understand what your brand brings.” The Economist brand’s vast reach helps with attracting an audience to the course. But that’s not all: The courses put the publisher’s journalistic expertise front and center of both the courses themselves, and the marketing strategy.

“Bringing the newsroom into our courses is absolutely central to our offering,” Duggan emphasized. “When you’re talking about topics that are extensively covered already in our publications, we need to make sure that the courses have the same take on subjects, the same access to the sources the journalists might use, and of course, the journalists themselves, because they are the best people to comment on these topics.”

Top marks and takeaways

The courses so far have been a success. Each one sees completion rates of around 94%. “When very busy executives are giving six to eight hours a week into a course, that’s quite a lot of time,” she said, noting that the lack of attrition highlights the strength of the content. 

The publisher declined to give any specific revenue figures, but did note that each course is attended by between 100-300 people on average. Given the price is £1,475 per person for their current selection, it is safe to assume each course is generating a healthy six-figure sum.

Now Economist Education has established itself and had time to iron out the kinks, they have a wide range of topics they can develop courses on next. Duggan confirmed that their next course will be on sustainability, coming in October. They are also exploring the B2B enterprise market. “From where we are now, there’s plenty of opportunity to continue growing quite quickly,” she noted. “There’s an awful lot of scope in the education sector.”

Although The Economist’s approach is specific to its own needs, there are still plenty of takeaways for other publishers looking to extend into educational courses. First and foremost, it is important to consider what your brand would bring to an education course. There may be lots of opportunities depending on the type of coverage. But educational courses like this are best suited to super-serving existing audiences rather than bringing in additional subscribers.

It is also crucial to acknowledge where skills may be missing at a publication. A well-crafted course will almost certainly need input from educators. Consider partnering with educational institutions or companies who specialize in pedagogy in order to bring the most value to a course. 

Ultimately, however, as publishers’ seek ways to build value for audiences and diversify revenue, there are lessons to be learned from The Economist’s successful addition of an Education pillar. Given a media brand’s strength and deep institutional expertise, there may well be value for audiences that want to engage more intently and enhance their own knowledge further.

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