As the saying goes, sometimes less is more. In the case of The Economist, the breadth of articles and analysis, which have been its hallmark since it was founded in 1843, was starting to fall out of step with today’s time-crunched readers. To realign with readers who need to digest a lot of information while on the go, The Economist released a new mobile app in May that focused on heightening interest all of the content it produces. And, even more importantly, the new app was designed to demonstrate a value proposition that would help it retain, rather than overwhelm, app subscribers.
The company doesn’t just rely on a better UX to help readers navigate content. The Economist app harnesses human judgment to curate content and surface interesting and relevant stories. It also introduces a welcome element of serendipity into the mix. Efforts to increase retention and become a “subscriber-first publication” are critical considering subscriptions and circulations make up the lion’s share (58%) of the Economist’s revenues and continue to grow at 21% year-on-year. Peggy Anne Salz, mobile analyst and Content Marketing Strategist at MobileGroove, catches up with Richard Holden, Deputy Head of Product at The Economist, to discuss the role of content choice in the user experience and the value-add provided by human judgment and editorial curation.
PAS: The Economist has 10 different apps in the Apple App Store. What are some of the differences in the apps and the audiences they serve?
RH: When we started out, the focus was to replicate our print edition on the digital platforms in ways that our users would find useful. At the time, the answer was to produce an app that was a replacement for print and a companion to the user. Fast forward a few years, and we arrive at Espresso, our real mobile-first daily update product and a great example of what a proper app can deliver if you put the user at the center. At that time, we wanted to offer a different user experience and go beyond just providing readers a digital version of the full Economist: It made sense because this was a different audience from the users who had embraced our first app and the full print replica if offers. Economist Espresso is a morning briefing from the editors of The Economist delivered to your smartphone or inbox before breakfast telling you what’s going on in the world.
PAS: Where does the new Economist app fit in that continuum?
RH: As we evolved, we saw the opportunity to find new ways to offer an experience that delivers the Economist in a way that provides value, but not necessarily the full Economist experience. So, we did quite a lot of user research and developed an app that makes it possible for us to do the job that users have essentially hired us to do when they commit to a subscription. They subscribe to the Economist because they want to access and experience the breadth of what the Economist has to offer, but they don’t just want the full print edition.
Following this is how we got to the user experience the new app offers. We didn’t just copy over the print edition and say ‘job done.’ Yes, the full print edition is available in the app, but it’s not the first screen we show the reader. We start by showing them what we call Daily Picks, which is where we give readers a valuable view into the breadth of what the Economist offers.
It’s not about providing breaking news. It is about serving up our analysis of what’s going on in the world. It’s about sharing stories that are interesting, informative—the stories our readers might not have known about otherwise—or even cared about—until we showed put them in our Daily Picks. This is where we use the power of our editorial curation to help users get that broad view of the world that they come to the Economist for—and the reason they subscribe to our app
PAS: It’s the “power of your editorial curation,” as you say, that adds value. Where do the stories come from and how are they chosen?
RH: It’s all within the Economist, but it’s full breadth of the Economist. This means, in addition to the full print version, we pull in and publish the stories that previously were only available on our website. The editor, the curator of the day, brings this wealth of content —all Economist content — into the app. And we’re seeing that our readers appreciate the mix. They don’t subscribe to read what they already read. So, a reader in Britain might want to read everything in the Britain section as a matter of habit. Our readers don’t want to go down a singular route to read the Economist. They value curation that introduces them to stories they might not read as a rule or even know exist.
PAS: Your readers look to the Economist to provide breadth, not just depth. But delivering it via an app is another matter…
RH: It’s hard to do in digital, for sure. In a magazine, people flick through and stop when a story catches their eye. It’s not as easy to do in digital. What we found in our earlier app is that there would be a considerable bias towards whatever was at the front. It was harder to get that serendipity because people had to swipe through a lot of content to get to the stuff in the back of the print edition on a mobile app. It was work, in a way, and users were taking the easy way out by reading what came first rather than swipe to the end. That’s the habit we’re breaking with the new app which is focused on removing friction and making reading an adventure again.
PAS: Curation is at the core of your app experience, but it relies on human editors, not AI technology. Tell me about the user experience.
RH: Our editors using their editorial judgment. When we talked to our readers, they told us they trust us to curate, and this is what they are paying for when they commit to a subscription. They want us to help them work out what’s most important or what’s most interesting, and this is what our editors do for them. That’s why we’ve chosen to use human judgment rather than go down the road of asking our reader their preferences or harness the technology to make suggestions or recommendations based on what they are reading.
We did think about AI, but our research told us users expect us to curate content. Perhaps, over time, we can refine editorial curation with the help of AI, as the two aren’t mutually exclusive. It may be that we can combine human judgment with AI in a way that still makes sense for our readers. It’s a route we may want to explore in the future. But AI won’t be a replacement for human curation. Right now, curation by our editors is the way we want to go. It’s what our subscribers pay us to do for them.
PAS: Beyond improving the user experience through expert curation what other innovations can we expect from the Economist?
RH: To be honest, I’m less enamored around new technologies like AR and VR and more interested in using technology to reduce friction. One of the developments I’m most excited about is the password management improvement we’ll see with iOS 12. It’s perhaps not very glamorous, but it will make it easier to log in to apps with the same password you use for websites, and that is useful for our readers.
As we shift from advertising, we have focused on subscription. In the future, we will be looking at commercial opportunities for the app. While recognizing that ads are a part of the revenue streams that we need to have as part of a business, it’s also clear the commercial experience cannot be interruptive to our readers.
PAS: What’s the biggest challenge in bringing readers content from across the full breadth of your print and online assets?
RH: We see that the problem our readers have quite often is managing to read all the content we offer. They find it quite hard to finish the whole thing every week. It’s a significant time commitment. And, like a gym membership, even people with the best intentions just can’t keep to the routine. People can start to feel guilty if they’ve got a pile of print editions on their coffee table unopened, or a load of bookmarks. So, rather than enjoying reading the Economist, you’ve got a situation where readers start to a bit guilty. We don’t want readers to give up; we want to make it even easier for them to get value from The Economist without feeling they have to read it all. That’s where our focus on curation comes in. It’s our service to make life less complicated and the experience more enjoyable.
Moving forward, we’re not going to just add more content and make it complicated. It’s not about adding new tabs to make it tough to read. We keep it simple and surface relevant with interesting content that helps them get value out of their subscription.
PAS: Maintaining a user-centric approach often requires publishers to adopt a different mindset. What advice could you offer companies based on your journey at the Economist?
RH: Stay focused on your readers, not on the needs of different parts of an organization. If we’re honest, all editorial organizations struggle because different parts of the organization will always want their content to be top, front and center. If you do that, you can end up with something that’s very bloated and hard for the reader to navigate. It can be challenging to move from that mindset—thinking you know what’s best–to providing the readers what’s best for them. It requires companies to put the user first, and it requires constant testing and iteration to find out what works, rather than making assumptions about what works and what doesn’t.