Economist exec on the role of ‘brand’ in today’s media landscape

This was one of the messages on day one of the American Magazine Media 360º conference in New York, organised by MPA – the US association of magazine media, writes FIPP’s Cobus Heyl.

The Millennial generation is one of the hot topics of industry discussion these days, but as Paul Rossi, president of The Economist Group, pointed out, people “might ask why we are talking about Millennials again,” but it is a “core, core issue for bringing new people to the brand.”

In an earlier conversation with FIPP, Lindsey Pollak, an expert on millennials, who was also on the panel with Rossi, said Millennials present the biggest media opportunity “in modern history.” 

In the US, Millennials are around 80 million strong – around double that of Gen X – putting them in the same class as the Baby Boomer generation. Coupled with that, they are the first generation to have grown up with new digital technologies, leading change in media consumption habits.

Rossi likened Millennials to “content DJs”, curating and sharing content in the digital space. Within the social media environment, they are acutely aware of their “personal brands” within the space.

There is a “swirl of noise” and they are “tapping into brands” to “ground” their thinking with data, facts and credible brand perspective.

It is therefore important for brands to choose their “brand story and stick to it.” Brands need to think about the values it wants to portray, and it has to remain “true to that or real.” Otherwise “they will drop you very quickly.”

Around 40 per cent of The Economist’s web audience is Millennial. According to Rossi they attract millennials through “all the standard things like mobile, social and video.”

On the mobile side, the focus is on apps. There is a challenge here in that The Economist’s model is built around premium content, while millennials “want things for free.” While it is something The Economist constantly evaluates, an interesting insight is that the print-only subscription audience skews younger compared to the digital-only subscription audience.

Social media, in turn, is a “huge brand builder” for The Economist as it tries to tap into and helps steer conversations. But, here, “listening” is also important, which is something “media companies are not particularly good at.”

Given the power of social media to drive online usage, not surprisingly some content-related conversation during the day focused on the question of whether to give audiences stories they want or they need. 

Rossi explained The Economist’s view that the perspective of the brand is important (which is why it still carries no by-lines). “It’s a balance, but if you write to order you will be in trouble. It is really important to be true to yourself (i.e. your brand).”

With the web becoming a visual medium, The Economist is actively working on developing more video products. Rossi later again referred to video when he said, “we are talking a lot about the move from print to digital, but in fact the world is moving from text to visual. This visual medium is going to be huge for all of us. It is watch first, read second.”

One of the final panel questions was about how The Economist will preserve print, to which Rossi was emphatic in his response. “It is not our job to keep print alive at every cost. It happens to be remarkably profitable for us, and as long as it stays that way, it’s fine. [But if the audience] moves elsewhere, we will move with them. For us it is about preserving the brand, not print as a channel.”

The Economist is a FIPP member.

More about MPA’s 360 conference in New York.

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Millennial expert Lindsey Pollak’s message to magazine media.

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