The Economist’s two-year-old foray into Snapchat Discover has been hailed as a successful introduction of a 175-year-old publication to a new generation — while remaining true to the venerable brand’s voice.

In a live Webinar on Wednesday, Snapchat editor Lucy Rohr led INMA members through how The Economist worked to find the proper editorial and visual language for the Snapchat platform and how it is strategically putting its journalism in front of a vast audience of 14- to 24-year-olds they could not otherwise reach. 

Rohr began by saying that the biggest existential question facing legacy media publishers is how to remain relevant to younger audiences. This has been Rohr’s principal preoccupation for the past few years.

The presentation covered The Economist’s journey using the Snapchat Discover platform, the lessons learned, and whether the experiment has been a worthwhile endeavour in terms of results.

Brief overview of The Economist and its digital products

As a legacy publisher founded in 1843, today The Economist has a global weekly circulation of 1.5 million, is editorially independent, with a sustainable business model that is profitable. Before getting into the conversation about Snapchat, Rohr said that it was important to look at five core values of the company:

  • A trusted, finishable filter of the news.
  • A smart guide to forces shaping the future.
  • A staunch advocate for progressive, liberal causes.
  • Global, not national.
  • High-quality journalism for people willing to pay for it.
Core values of The Economist must be incorporated into any new platform or product.
Core values of The Economist must be incorporated into any new platform or product.

Those five core values must be incorporated into any new undertaking that The Economist embarks upon, including digital and social media. When Rohr’s team looks at any new digital product, they ask themselves if it can enhance the value of the package, if it can introduce new subscribers — and ideally, can it do both?

Rohr discussed some of The Economist’s digital products:

  • Espresso, the app that provides a daily, condensed shot of The Economist content. It is free for Economist subscribers and also available as a standalone subscription.
  • Economist radio, with five weekly podcasts, is a tool for reaching new audiences, providing a trusted news filter in a succinct, finishable experience. Available to all core subscribers.

Lucy Rohr led Webinar attendees through The Economist's strategy for Snapchat.
Lucy Rohr led Webinar attendees through The Economist's strategy for Snapchat.

The Economist on Snapchat

Rohr admitted that when the conversations first started happening about using Snapchat for The Economist, she was unsure whether it was a good platform for the company’s in-depth, long-form journalism. The project moved forward in 2016, and at that time of launch the average Snapchat users were between 14-24 years of age.

While those demographics have increased on the older side of that age range, it’s still largely a platform of very young users for an average of 40 minutes per day. An audience of 186 million people are on Snapchat every day. Snapchat Discover is the “story” channel for publishers and brands.

When The Economist launched its Snapchat Discover channel in 2016, there were approximately 40 publishers on the site. Today, there are more than 90. So, how does The Economist fit into this crowded ecosystem? Rohr said the first fallacy is that to reach the Snapchat audience, a publisher must somehow need to “dumb down” their content.

“I think that this is a profound insult, really, to younger audiences. If you think that younger audiences somehow are less intelligent and less engaged than older ones, you are severely underestimating younger audiences — and probably overestimating older ones,” Rohr said. “There is a highly critical, highly intelligent, and globally curious community that exists on Snapchat Discover, just like it does in the real world.”

The question remained how The Economist could translate its content to Snapchat in a way that would be compelling, true to its style, and also satisfy the way that Discover allows people to consume journalism.

“What this led to was a period of intense experimentation, and fortunately we had a nice, long runway to launch,” Rohr said.

Team members decided to run the department somewhat like a start-up so they could expand or contract depending on the needs of the project. The team’s small size meant it could be very nimble when it came to pivoting as needed.

What they came up with was a way of overlapping The Economist’s core values with what works on the Snapchat Discover platform. The channel would be a trusted, finishable filter of news, with succinctly curated content that offered deep dives into single topics — basically, the ultimate “cheat sheet.”

The Economist's Snapchat channel echoes the company's values and journalistic goals.
The Economist's Snapchat channel echoes the company's values and journalistic goals.

The team put each of the news topics into 14 to 16 snaps, which together make up about a minute and a half of looping video, with swipe-up options at the end of each article. Even this short span is considered longer content for Snapchat.

Proof of concept

There was a lot of brainstorming as Rohr’s team determined its approach, she said: “Initially we thought,  why don’t we do lots of different stories, what we would call a grab-bag approach with lots of different content. But we realised that the way we could set ourselves apart from other publishers on the platform, and also an approach that would suit our kind of journalism, would be to do a deep dive into a single topic.”

The idea was to provide The Economist’s Snapchat audience with a mental toolkit, vocabulary, and context for understanding an important topic. “We try to arrest them, engage them. And then if they want to continue exploring more, we’ve got these swipe-up articles at the end of each edition.”

While the team also does some “grab-bag” editions, those also tend to be themed.

Another core Economist value they could provide on Snapchat was that of acting as a guide to the future and an advocate for progressive, liberal causes. “For younger audiences, our future coverage seems to be an ideal fit,” Rohr said. “We’re not just interested in telling them what’s going to happen in the future, but how it’s going to affect them.”

A visual platform like Snapchat lends itself well to the “show, don’t tell” tenet of journalism. The audience is one that is curious about the world and often has strong views on it.

“In the world of Kim Kardashian and make-up tips, how do we stand out?” Rohr said team members asked themselves. “One way is by telling stories from around the world and telling them in a way that is novel and fresh for this audience.” They have done a number of editions on Russia, as well as on North Korea.

Designing for Discover

“Once we worked out what our editorial voice would sound like, we had to work out what we would look like,” Rohr said. “Just like The Economist has always had a very distinct editorial voice, we also have a distinct visual language.”

When creating their visual Snapchat look, the team wanted to make sure it would be immediately identifiable as The Economist — yet it also had to speak the language of the Snapchat user. What they came up with was a look that was bold, playful, and elegant.

The design team is international, with four people besides Rohr, that are based in Bucharest, London, and Spain.

The approach to Snapchat Discover, and the short attention spans of its users, was to create buy-in very early on in any edition. This means the stories would open with facts that pull people in immediately — stats that are astounding or extraordinary about any given issue.

So, how do they actually come up with their storyboard?

To determine what story to feature, the team looks at topics The Economist has previously written about so they have supporting material for Snapchat readers to swipe up to at the end of the Edition.

“That said, a heck of a lot of what we’re doing on Snapchat is original reporting,” Rohr said. “The scripting process requires a lot of research. Once we’ve decided on the topic we read extensively…and we also pressure test if that’s going to work with the audience.”

That scripting process takes quite some time because of the original research. The team is also thinking about the visual aspects and how they will work together with the journalism. The story is then storyboarded with the designers and animators to create the Snaps. The team publishes the stories every Friday on Snapchat.

The results

“We’re very happy with the way things have gone for us on Snapchat,” Rohr said. “It’s led to the single biggest step change in our audience since 1843, when we were founded. We’ve introduced The Economist to an important new audience.”

The Economist has been very happy with the results of its Snapchat experiment.
The Economist has been very happy with the results of its Snapchat experiment.

While The Economist overall tends to perform better with men, Snapchat’s 70% female user base gives them access to that audience, which they are excited about. The experiment has shown they are able to update their image and serves as proof they can engage with an important new platform and format.

“I think for me, that’s the most important outcome of this experiment so far,” Rohr said. “A big challenge that we face is that people don’t really know The Economist and assume that we only write about economic stuff. So being on Discover has helped us address that misconception that we are boring and stuffy, and just read by men on planes.”

The experiment has also brought advertising revenue, though that wasn’t the main goal. “You could sort of see it as a form of advertiser-supported marketing to an important new audience.”

Rohr stressed that The Economist’s presence on a platform like Snapchat Discover only makes sense if it’s representative of its journalism.

“We think that The Economist on Snapchat is probably the most unexpected example of the approach we take when applying our established brand of global analysis to new digital platforms and products,” Rohr concluded. “As our Snapchat editor, I think that it’s teaching us very valuable lessons about how to remain relevant to the conversation.”

After a two-year experiment with Snapchat Discover, The Economist has decided that it is a "yes, really" venture.
After a two-year experiment with Snapchat Discover, The Economist has decided that it is a "yes, really" venture.

Q&A

INMA: What kind of creative standards does Snapchat impose or ask of The Economist?

Rohr: Around the time we joined, several publishers left. When we began storyboarding, it did look too templated and too staid. There wasn't that playful language that is very much at home on the platform. I think what they [Snapchat] wanted from us was a design that clearly had a concept behind it. I think their expectations of us might be a little different from that of a daily publisher. I think the bar was a bit higher as a result of us being weekly.

INMA: Would you say that content today is about content strategy, marketing strategy, or both?

Rohr: From an editorial point of view and my experience, I would say that content is king. When the content is good, it will always perform well. If we have written our Snaps and designed them in a way that’s clever and engaging, then everybody’s happy. The engagement will be strong, and I assume that has a bearing on the marketing and commercial side of things, although that department is a little beyond my purview.

INMA: How many subscribers do you have? What are your metrics on Snapchat?

Rohr: We have on average about five million people come our way every month. And in terms of Editions that have performed very well, we will have well over four million uniques. But what I’m interested in engagement and how long people are staying around for. 

INMA: Is engagement on Snapchat about being alarming?

Rohr: Not at all. I look at it as how long someone spends with your Edition. Another way of looking at engagement is how many people are swiping up into our articles and how long they are reading those. The only correlation between alarming people and engagement is that by putting a sort of heading on your title Snap that might spur them to swipe into an Edition ... you grab their attention right away to engage them more deeply.

INMA: What reader engagement tricks of the trade do you employ that you’re particularly proud of?

Rohr: Careful content selection, by which I mean choosing content that you’re going to be able to present in a compelling way. And then the compelling telling. That for me is about grabbing someone’s attention. And then, as quickly as possible, showing how this is relevant to them.