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March 29, 2016updated 02 Apr 2016 11:39am

Economist deputy editor Tom Standage on how the weekly business mag reached 35m social media followers

By Dominic Ponsford

Economist deputy editor and head of digital strategy Tom Standage has revealed some of the secrets behind his title’s 35m-strong social media following.

In terms of social media reach The Economist boasts:

  • 15.7m Twitter followers
  • 7.5m Facebook likes
  • 10.1m Google+ Circle members
  • 1.4m LinkedIn members
  • 390,000 Instagram followers
  • 218,000 Tumbler followers
  • 142,000 Youtube subscribers.

Asked how the weekly business magazine has managed to become so popular on social media, Standage said: “The first point is that these platforms are global and our content is global, we have a global point of view.

“If you are a British newspaper you probably have less of a chance of attracting a global audience because you’d probably be focused on British news. We’ve always covered the whole world so we think that gives us an advantage on a global platform.

“The other thing is there is a social cachet that can come from sharing our content.

“There was a time when The Economist appeared on the Simpsons. Homer and Marge go on a plane and get upgraded and Marge says something like ‘look at me I’m drinking Champagne and Homer says something like ‘look at me I’m reading The Economist, did you know Indonesia is at a crossroads?'

“Basically if you share an Economist story, like Homer, you are saying ‘look at me I read The Economist’ and you are reminding people just how clever you are. I think that helps us, it makes people more inclined to retweet and share our content.”

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Asked about the nuts and bolts of how The Economist uses social media, Standage said: “We have a fantastic social team who are very good at figuring out how to make our stories and our journalism fly on various social platforms, not just Facebook and Twitter but other platforms as well like Line and so on.

“We are writing new headlines for different platforms, writing multiple versions of each headline, monitoring very carefully which ones do well and learning from that, we have a data analyst in the social team who provides us with daily feedback saying: ‘Suddenly these types of posts aren’t doing well and these ones are, Facebook must have changed the algorithm’ and then they can adjust what they are doing.

“We’ve done a lot of analysis on how many words should be in a Tweet or a Facebook post etc. etc. So we scrutinise very carefully the performance of everything and adjust course very quickly day to day if the algorithms change.”

“When you think you’ve figured it out you may have done but everything will change next week and you have to be prepared to move.

“At times we can sound very serious, especially in our leaders, but there’s always an underlying humour to it – particularly in our picture captions.

“This combination of brevity, analysis and wit is central to the way we work and that does actually seem to work on social media.”

Standage said that social media is driving traffic and subscriptions. The Economist claims total magazine sales in print, and digitally, of 1.5m a week worldwide.

He said: “Users who come to us from social are more likely to come back to us than, say, users who come from search. They are more loyal in that sense. And users who come back to us are more likely to subscribe.

“The first step is to read our journalism and to understand what we are doing.”

In terms of the future of social media, Standage said messaging apps are going to be big and he singled out Line – a messaging and phone calls app which is popular in Asia.

Standage said: “It looks like Instagram, but you can send links and push-notifications to followers.

“It’s startling how effective that is and there is no [search] algorithm.”

Although The Economist has more than 10m followers on Google+, Standage admitted that the internet giant’s social media platform was not a big driver of traffic.

He said: “I’m not aware of any site that gets a significant amount of traffic from Google+.”

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