“It’s like working for a startup that was founded in 1843."
This is how Subrata Mukherjee (pictured), global head of the CASE Digital transformation programme at The Economist, sees the changes taking place at the historic publication.
Even the telephone didn’t exist in 1843, underlining just how much change the publication has seen. And, like long-standing firms in many sectors, its use of technology had sprawled into a confusing mish-mash of systems and stacks, eventually reaching a point where something had to be done.
“Over the past decades our technology has been growing and we’ve been effectively just sticking a plaster over each issue, which was far from ideal,” Mukherjee told V3.
For example, there was a rise in the number of complaints from customers who were unable to access The Economist website despite being subscribers, while others whose subscriptions had expired were still able to log in, meaning they didn’t renew their subscriptions. All this was costing the firm money.
“This is not supposed to happen in a modern, digital publishing company,” he said.
On the CASE
So last year, under Mukherjee’s guidance, the firm launched the CASE Digital Transformation project. CASE stands for Customer, Access, Subscription, E-commerce.
A team of 45-50 staff are working on the effort, with backing from the very top. “Support comes from the CEO. Without that it would not be possible, not even close,” explained Mukherjee.
The first major step for the CASE team was to take back control of its own data.
“Previously we had our data held with a third party, which was far from ideal. We even had to pay a fee to access it. So we realised we needed to manage our own master data management platform, which we did with Salesforce MDM,” he said.
This is now linked to a new subscription management suite, so the firm has a far clearer picture of who has what access to the website and whose subscriptions have lapsed.
The second major change is how The Economist uses its paywall. The site currently has a single set-up that allows visitors to see one article for free, then three after registering, and unlimited for subscribers.
However, there are plans to enhance this by using tools from Piano Media to provide more granular paywall access to content by location and user profile.
“This will allow marketing to create more bespoke offers for access to the site, for a certain number of articles say, relevant to their audience, not just a one-size-fits-all approach,” said Mukherjee.
Another major change is an effort to use tools that allow teams to create topic- and vertical-specific apps for mobile platforms and HTML5-built online apps by collating content, using technology from subscription content specialists Zuora.
“So if someone is interested in China, we can offer them a separate app that uses our content to bring information into one place. This is a real focus on e-commerce that never used to exist in the company,” Mukherjee said.
Unlike some digital transformation projects, The Economist made a deliberate decision to use outside tools rather than develop bespoke technologies in-house.
“That was a conscious decision. We look at a build versus buy analysis, and the goal was to buy one platform to do everything and then add on from there. But we don’t want to go crazy, we want to keep it simple so that we can add new products as we develop,” he explained.
This desire to keep things simple and focused is a key component of other projects at the firm.
“We want to avoid project creep, so we meet regularly to make sure everything is progressing as it should, within scope,” added Mukherjee.
Finally, in perhaps a surprising move given how some companies are very guarded about their internal efforts, Mukherjee said that The Economist regularly talks to other publishers about the problems and the challenges they’ve had to overcome.
“Information sharing goes both ways and there are so many great leaders in tech roles at publishing firms that, given how some titles have suffered in the move away from print, we need to help each other out,” he explained.
“This doesn’t mean giving away the core details of the products you’re working on, but more sharing of high-level ideas to help maintain the industry as a whole.”
He urged other industries to think about this too, noting that it’s better in the long run because firms can thrive and staff will remain content as they know they are working somewhere just as cutting-edge as the rivals.
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