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  • The Economist Espresso:An interview with Michael Brunt (CMO), and Tom Standage (Deputy Editor)
  • Astrid Van den Bossche (bio)

Espresso was my fault,” laughs Tom Standage, Deputy Editor at The Economist. In response, Chief Marketing Officer Michael Brunt carefully suggests Espresso, the name for the magazine’s daily issue, is unlikely to turn out to be a mistake. In November 2015, The Economist launched this app, though an e-mail version is also available for less mobile-savvy readers. The daily issue a first since the magazine’s foundation in 1843, and although it is far from its first foray into mobile technology, this strategic move is possibly the most forward looking. For this Advertising & Society Review interview, Brunt and Standage kindly agreed to clarify their thinking behind the new product.

As a weekly, The Economist has always benefited from a loyal following. The secret lies in the magazine’s promise to its subscriber: “You spend an hour and a half reading us on Saturday morning,” explains Standage, “and we’ll tell you what you need to know about this week’s events.” In the age of information overload, the magazine’s “finishability”, easily consolidated into a weekly routine, is a powerful Unique Selling Proposition (USP). Yet even the strongest of brands needs to revaluate its advantages in light of developing technologies and an expanding competitor space in order to find ways in which to remain relevant beyond The Economist moment.

Espresso was designed to fulfil the same role as the weekly, but it plays out in the quotidian news landscape. An accompaniment to your breakfast routine, it promises a quick but complete-enough news briefing. The app is, of course, not The Economist’s first foray into digital. Yet the web articles, the occasional newsletters, and podcasts don’t embody The Economist’s “finishability” quite as clearly as Espresso. Nor is the app a repackaging of the weekly; Espresso “chunks” are contained and forward news pieces of 150 words (about the length of what you can fit on a mobile screen). The reader who requires more analytical depth is directed towards the original product.

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Figures 1-3.

The launch page, home page, and a story page. Navigation is straightforward: swipe down to read, left for the next ‘story’.

For these reasons, developing Espresso turned out to be a bigger challenge than previous digital products: it not only required a new way of presenting content, but also a new form of content itself that couldn’t be led just by editorial or technological requirements. The fit with current subscribers needed to be right, as well as its potential to attract new customers—and all, of course, without becoming a major drain on resources.

Made possible by digital

Acting as Digital Editor at the time of the launch, Standage had been entertaining the notion of a daily for a while. The moment, however, needed to be ripe: without the right technology, it would be difficult for The Economist to issue content that remained loyal to the weekly’s spirit. A print version had been, and still is, impossible to do. But the proliferation of mobile news aggregators provided the needed inspiration for Standage to start imagining what opportunities lay in app-land for The Economist.

Constructing the first prototypes himself, he subsequently teamed up with Emma Duncan, then Deputy Editor, to brainstorm on the daily’s content. Proto-daily issues were sent around the office for input and feedback to get it just right. By the time of the app’s launch, the team had been producing full issues (complete with charts and links) for a full month. The product had been honed considerably before subscribers ever heard of its existence, and Standage admits that he just wanted to try something new without asking customers what they wanted. As the dictum goes, they often don’t know.

Key to this process, Standage insists, was the formation of a cross-functional team that was both embedded within regular Economist staff, but retained start-up-like freedom. Stepping into new spaces can...

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