How The Economist has tripled the number of subscribers driven by LinkedIn

Over the last two years, The Economist has narrowed its focus on what it publishes to LinkedIn. And it’s reaping the benefits by turning those users into subscribers.

After switching gears on its content strategy — starting narrow to publish just business and finance coverage, then going broad by posting all its coverage and then back to a more selective publishing process — it’s grown its followers 39.5% over the last year to 11.4 million. LinkedIn is second only to Twitter in terms of social media platform follower count (it has over 25 million Twitter followers across several accounts).

Of social platforms, LinkedIn is the publisher’s third-biggest subscription driver. The amount of organic traffic that LinkedIn refers back to The Economist site — where people can register to access several articles before subscribing — has doubled year over year. And subscriptions to The Economist generated organically from LinkedIn have tripled year on year, although it wouldn’t say from what base. 

As the platform has changed over the last decade, so has the publisher’s understanding of what works.

“LinkedIn has changed over the last couple of years, it’s moved from a platform where you would get a job to [becoming] more content-focused,” said Jack Lahart, head of social media at The Economist. “In the early days, The Economist brand would have stuck well with audiences who were out there looking for a new job and sharing our content.”

The Economist’s social editors, a team of nine who work across all social platforms and are based in London and New York, select nine stories to go out on LinkedIn each day, scheduled for similar times to help build audience habit. Stories with a more U.K. or European focus are posted earlier to follow the local time zone. These are a mix of formats such as article links, videos and graphics. While videos typically have higher likes and comments than articles, because they’re viewed natively in the platform, their referral potential is lower. The publisher has also beefed up the length of captions to add context around the posts, encouraging people to read more.

So far in 2020, the highest converting articles from LinkedIn are a piece on how the economic crisis will expose a decade’s worth of corporate fraud, and one on the gulf between the stock market and the real economy. While these play squarely in The Economist’s wheelhouse of business and finance themes, science, tech and culture pieces do well too — as the content people what to read has expanded. Two pieces from the Economist’s culture title 1843 were in the top five for driving referral traffic to The Economist in August, like a story on dating during the pandemic

On LinkedIn, a key success metric for The Economist is the number of comments on posts, showing that people debate what it’s posting, year-on-year these are up 251%. Shares are up 158% and impressions have also increased 287%, according to the publisher. It’s also using this selective process of publishing on Instagram too, where it’s also seeing grow.

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As of June 2020, the Economist had a combined global print and digital circulation of 1.7 million, according to U.K. measurement firm, the Audit Bureau of Circulations.

Lahart points out that Facebook and Twitter are still the heavy hitters when it comes to reach, scale and driving the most subscribers. Despite the recent rapid growth of LinkedIn, he believes there’s still more to eke out of the platform. 

Previously, The Economist used to post all of its business and finance coverage to LinkedIn, assuming that its network of 250 million monthly active professionals would have a natural appetite for these topics. Sluggish growth led it to widen the scope, posting everything the Economist publishes — between 75 and 100 pieces of content a week — in a more scattergun approach. When that yielded little, it began its current, more selective approach.   

Social platforms are funnels to push potential audiences into becoming subscribers, but conversion rates are typically low compared with other platforms and formats. “Facebook and Twitter have very low conversion rates in the 0.05% range, at the median,” said svp strategy at tech company Piano, Michael Silberman. “That’s compared with an overall median conversion rate of 0.20% across our full database for paid subscription offers.” 

For LinkedIn, Piano doesn’t have conversion metrics. Few publishers outside The Economist have the scale of following to capitalize on the audience outside of the platform. At time of writing, business publisher Forbes has 14.7 million followers while Business Insider has 9.6 million. On Parse.ly, LinkedIn has dropped out of the top 10 traffic referrers for the firm’s more than 2,500 sites. 

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