The Economist banks on big data

Stephane PereIn the space of 10 years, digital technologies have forever changed the media industry. Big data has become the latest challenge that businesses must deal with. Stéphane Père, Chief Data Officer at The Economist, tells us how we can use big data, and why it is important to us.


The media industry’s first Chief Data Officer 

Stéphane Père joined The Economist back in 2007 as an online advertising manager. In 2010, he launched Ideas, People, Media in the United States, before becoming the British publication’s Chief Data Officer (CDO) in October 2013.  As CDO, his job is to “use data to be one of the best marketers out there. The position of CDO had just been created at The Economist, one of the world’s forerunners in this field.” Stéphane then hired a team of 12 data scientists. Data scientists are some of the most highly sought-after workers in the marketplace. They develop algorithms that transform data into usable forecasts. “Very early on, The Economist decided to invest in recruiting the best data scientists available.” The company’s data scientists use a SaaS-based data management platform (DMP) developed by Oracle, which collects, centralises and manages data on customers and prospects.  “We also work with other players such as Maximyser on AB testing, and Adobe on analytics.”


Breaking down silos by cross-referencing data

“Cross-referencing big data enables us to unlock its true value”, explained Stéphane, who groups data into three main categories: Behavioural data, or web analytics, provides information on how people read the magazine online. Customer Relationship Management (CRM) data provides information on their purchasing behaviour, i.e. what they buy and how. The third category is other types of data, such as e-mails sent and the results of marketing campaigns. “My title as CDO serves to give me gravitas among our staff and to prevent big data being hoarded, say, by marketing departments, which have a tendency to monopolise customer data when really it should be used to encourage all departments to work together and drive the business forward.” He quotes the example of the editorial team using data not in the aim of determining the editorial policy, which, according to Stéphane, poses a risk to the media’s integrity, but to optimize elements such as page layout, video formats and infographics.


A business-oriented view of data

“Business oriented” is how Stéphane sums up his credo on data use. He believes that data should first and foremost be used to help the marketing department understand, connect with and engage its readers. Using this in-depth knowledge of its audience, The Economist can optimize the advertising solutions it proposes to media buyers. “We use big data to more precisely target, in real time, the types of readers our advertising customers are looking to reach with their campaigns. It effectively lowers their cost of acquiring new audiences.

Stéphane’s role also includes defining the framework of this business-oriented approach. “In my job, I must constantly be thinking about using big data to offer value propositions. If an idea can improve our offering to our advertising customers and our readers, then we will go ahead with it. If not, we won’t.” For instance, The Economist has no plans to sell data. “Contrary to certain practices in the United States, at Forbes in particular, monetizing data is not one of our development priorities. This is because we firmly believe that data is only meaningful when it is related to media, and not decorrelated from it.”


To wrap up…

“At The Economist, data use is part of a much broader initiative to complete the digital transformation we began working on several years ago. Today, half of our revenues come from digital sources. The reason we have solid revenues is that we didn’t wait until the advertising model had collapsed before thinking about subscriptions and making our publication available in digital format.”


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