Economist, Expressen share tactics for using video and audio to drive subscriptions

By Shelley Seale


Austin, Texas, United States


The COVID-19 pandemic has altered human behaviour in multiple ways. According to a survey in March 2020 by the U.K. Association of Online Publishers, adults in the U.K. were engaging in the following offline, in-home activities:

  • Cooking: 50%
  • Home improvement: 45%
  • Reading: 36%
  • Exercise: 29%

“But the biggest change is that people are spending much more time using media and much more time online,” INMA Researcher-in-Residence Grzegorz Piechota during a Readers-First Meet-Up on Wednesday. Adults in the U.K. are primarily online with mobile (up 67%), connected TV (up 54%), and laptop (up 46%).

Podcast usage, however, is down. Podcast listening was done primarily during commute times. And with most people not going to work, that consumption has decreased, though it is slowly beginning to recover. News podcasts are performing better than other genres.

Piechota — joined by Anne McElvoy, senior editor and director of podcasting for The Economist in the United Kingdom, and Thomas Mattsson, senior advisor at Bonnier News and former editor-in-chief of Expressen in Sweden — took an in-depth look at video and audio initiatives that news publishers have optimised for brand building, strengthening paid value proposition, and maximising time spent on the news sites and in the apps

Grzegorz Piechota leads an INMA Webinar about audio and video, with The Economist and Bonnier News.
Grzegorz Piechota leads an INMA Webinar about audio and video, with The Economist and Bonnier News.


The Economist: An audio case study

Economist Radio consists of eight different shows, including Checks and Balances, a show about U.S. politics with a distinctive history package that launched on January 24. The show has a growing listener base and paid marketing support.

Checks and Balance is an Economist Radio show that has a growing listener base.
Checks and Balance is an Economist Radio show that has a growing listener base.

“Every week, you’ve got a heavy lift thinking, what is it that’s worth looking at in detail,” she said about producing the show. “We do very well in unique listeners for the show.”

Overall, Economist Radio has seen listens up 70% YoY from 2019 to 2020, with more than 150 million downloads.

“There’s a bit of a question about what people like and what do they think they like?” McElvoy said. “And then, what do they actually do?” For lBabbage, for example — a science show — listeners are pretty much ready to subscribe when they tune in.

The weekly audio edition of The Economist is intended for subscribers and is only hosted on the platform. It is promoted primarily through Economist apps but also available as a download and RSS feed. It’s a unique asset to The Economist, increases visibility and data, and acts as a retention tool.

“Broadly speaking, I would say that the more time people are spending with us and getting used to us building apps that are more user-friendly, the more we can bring them into the audio edition,” McElvoy said. “It was sort of an undiscovered jewel. When people discover it, they tend to double down on engagement. And we will engage with them and hear what they have to say.”

She said 13% of their subscriber base is regular users, but she would like to see that figure rise.

“This is something we all need to think about. If you’re doing audio editions, I think there’s a bit of an expectation that if you do one, they will come. But I do think you have to very clearly message why it’s a really nice thing to listen rather than read. We need to think more about our audience and our curated play lists. How much do we want to curate for them, and how much do they want to do the curating?”

McElvoy has not seen a big drop-off in their audio edition audience, though she hesitates to be overconfident. “I think there’s a lot of potential development in our audio edition and also for other brands.”

The ease of the subscription process is important, as is demonstrating the value of audio — what the user will get from it that they don’t get from the other products.

Bonnier News: A video case study

Thomas Mattsson discussed Bonnier’s video and Web TV strategy. “I think what The Economist case study tells you is that you can offer various kinds of media,” he said. “We try to form a very distinctive news design, a lot of graphics, etc.”

As the former editor-in-chief of Expressen in Sweden, Mattsson said that brand has had videos on its Web site since 1997 and built its first green screen studio in 2005. Today, Expressen TV has more than 60 staff members, four TV studios, and 200 million monthly views on its own platform.

Expressen has four studios producing its strong video content that pulls 200 million views monthly.
Expressen has four studios producing its strong video content that pulls 200 million views monthly.

“3D augmented reality is used fairly often because it makes it easy to produce high-quality videos,” he said.

Sister channel Di TV is produced by Expressen TV and is Sweden’s only business news channel. Green screens are very cost-effective, Mattsson said, because you don’t have to move furniture or sets.

He discussed some of the general video trends he is seeing in 2020:

  • Video is now an integral part of the content offering.
  • Live coverage is necessary for breaking news sites.
  • Autoplay is accepted by viewers.
  • Production quality is increasing.
  • Revenues are basically pre-rolls.
  • Paywalls are also used.

“News reporting is basically free,” Mattsson said. “It’s a rich product with pre-rolls, and you have it to engage people to ensure that they show up at your Web site if something is happening.”

Video is still mostly about reach for Bonnier, though there will be more subscriber-only offerings throughout 2020, especially when sports start back up, he said. “That would be part of the premium offering, but the news offering is free.”

Some brands with a strong focus on digital subscriptions still offer lots of free videos, Mattsson said. Video is supporting digital subscriptions in a variety of ways:

  • Lower-level and youth sports.
  • High-end professional sports.
  • Live streams.
  • Documentaries.
  • Engaging content.

Free news content is about attracting the viewer, while other video content such as tech or sports might be behind the paywall.

As an example, Amedia out of Norway has launched a niche portal, Direktesport, with about 5,000 live-streamed youth and local sports matches behind a paywall. In another example, Goteborgs-Posten in Sweden recently televised a local under-19 football game, with plans to show 350 games in lower divisions during 2020 (before coronavirus). In 2019, they covered 100 games.

In high-end or professional sports, Aftonbladet in Sweden acquired the exclusive rights to the Fifa Club World Cup 2019, which they aired as a premium offering at Aftonbladet+.

“You have to be exclusive,” Mattsson said. Without exclusivity, a publisher would find it hard to get people to pay for the content.

He then discussed the rolling news stream, which is something HLN in Belgium does. In cooperation with its sister company, TV broadcaster VTM, it offers a 365/24/7 stream of breaking news and curated clips. This is free, but viewers must register to watch it. This provides leads for potential paying customers.

Verdens Gang in Norway offers more than 400 documentaries to VG+ customers.

“They even produce their own original content,” Mattsson said. “In April, during the COVID-19 crisis, VG offered five documentaries for free. Some of them are Academy Award-winners.”

This is a game that more newspapers will be playing, he added. “There’s a lot of content out there available for newspapers to license, and they can put it as part of their digital subscription offering. This is high-quality content and you can really charge for it.”

Video content is highly engaging. Mattsson suggested INMA members take a look at the tech videos offered by The Wall Street Journal in the United States. With more than two million digital subscribers, The Wall Street Journal has found true success with WSJ+. Still, all video on is free.

The Wall Street Journal uses video content to enrich its user experience.
The Wall Street Journal uses video content to enrich its user experience.

“I think it’s interesting that the big brands, like the Financial Times and The New York Times also offer video for free,” he said. “This is a big trend, and more publishers around the world are starting to do more video.”

Mattsson offered two pieces of advice:

  • Make it simple. When it comes to production, a simple smartphone can get the job done, especially with live breaking news.
  • Make it better. Quality is still important, especially with graphics. Publishers also don’t know what device a viewer will be watching on — it could be their phone or it could be a 55-inch Apple TV.

The importance of simplicity versus quality largely depends on what the content is. If a journalist is standing in front of a burning house reporting on breaking news, then a handheld phone is acceptable and viewers are forgiving. If the reporters are in a studio talking about the elections, however, the quality better be high.

Keep an eye on Bild, he said. Based in Germany, the largest newspaper in Europe is investing heavily in video with a new TV studio and more staff. They are doing a minimum of five live shoots per day, which is exclusive content only for Bild+ customers.

“I think this is a strategy that more will follow,” Mattsson said. “You would put some news [video] for free, and then you would have some exclusive content for your digital subscribers. You have to have video content which aligns with your brand.”


INMA: Does Economist Radio find that its audience is commuter-based or do you see a different kind of audience?

McElvoy: If it’s a daily commuter show like The Intelligence, we see some fall-off. Subscriptions starts are down a little bit, but some ground was made up with uniques. Not so much for our feature shows, listeners have held pretty steady there. You’ve got to be ready when audiences want their routine back that you haven’t drifted off.

INMA: Are you seeing any different behaviour patterns in your listeners?

McElvoy: I think we need a bit more of a longitudinal look at what’s happening. Everything else seems rather stable. The proportion of time spent on the daily shows versus features, initially the daily shows were down and features were up. It seems to be coming back to trend. Interestingly, non-COVID subjects performed very well. I think people needed a break.

INMA: I run a business radio show here in the UK. I was told by someone at the beginning, “If you want a specific guest, just ask them.” It’s proved true that people like the platform (radio) to be and be seen on. Do you find the same?

McElvoy: I think yes, that’s true, and obviously you’re doing it right if they’re saying yes. If you’re trying to do what we’re trying to do, which is go after some of the biggest names, you can’t just assume they’re going to say yes. You’ve got to build sort of case studies for why they should say yes. Also, being able to say, “In the last 12 months, we have had these people.” You need the value proposition, and that kicks you into the next level of bidding. We do a lot of analysing as to who comes on and why.

INMA: How important is it to have your articles read by humans rather than machines?

McElvoy: We’re strictly human and committed to that. I think if you’re offering a premium, everything we do should be good. People are very engaged with the human voice.

INMA: What’s the sales model for Bonnier News pre-rolls — sponsorship, share of voice or CPM?

Mattsson: Basically, all of those. If you would watch around the newspaper world, you would find that most news offerings are pre-roll financed. And then there are sponsorships. Legislation is different in various countries. In some countries you aren’t allowed to have sponsors for news broadcasts. But we also have native advertising. So there’s a variety of business models. But there’s more of a trend that newspapers are producing videos and putting them behind the paywall, because that’s part of your offering.

INMA: If I wanted to start a video strategy for my publication, should I start with creating more original content, or should I look for licensing opportunities?

Mattsson: If you’re a local newspaper, there are probably very few suppliers of content that you can license from. You would have to go on the street to document local happenings. If you are a national player, then there are lots more opportunities to license. Don’t over-invest. Technology these days is much less expensive than before. You can create super content with an iPhone. You can do it step by step. But you also have to make sure that your viewers accept this. There’s no lack of content, videos are everywhere. It has to be within your brand.

INMA and Piechota just released a new report, “News Subscriptions in the Age of the Coronavirus.” The report, released on Wednesday and free to INMA members, examines key mechanisms behind traffic growth and reader revenue, key trends at work in the subscriptions space, and highlights successful strategies from publishers worldwide.

About Shelley Seale

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