Interview with Jora Gill- Inside the digital mindset of The Economist


Jora Gill is the Economist Group’s Chief Digital Officer. Since stepping into this role, he has overseen the group’s infrastructure change to the Cloud and led a transformation of its products and services. He was previously Chief Technology Officer at Elsevier and also at Standard & Poors. Jora is recognised as one of the Top 100 Global Digital Change Agents. We sat down with him to find out more about the digital mindset he promoted at the Economist.

Q: In your opinion as the company’s first Chief Digital Officer, what kind of media organisation is The Economist today? How does it differ from other organisations in a crowded media landscape?

The Economist has not changed in terms of its focus on producing high calibre, well thought-out journalistic content. The value proposition of The Economist therefore remains the same – being a trusted filter and a smart guide to the forces that shape the future.

The difference in terms of digital is that the company now reaches it customers through the medium that customers wish to engage with our content, be it through our new website, apps, social, video, audio, print or virtual reality.

The organisation is very collaborative and therefore likes to build a cross-functional team when looking at customer journeys and product development. They are also not afraid to try new ideas even if they initially fail. They therefore have the right digital mindset.

Q: The Economist is known for its subscription-based model and high quality insights. What kinds of digital initiatives are boosting the loyalty of your subscribers whilst maintaining the integrity of The Economist as a brand? Where do you see the future of digital news platforms and subscription models heading?

We have a very large digital transformation program to provide customers with a seamless approach to accessing our content. We decided that we would make our customer experience one of the best.

To do this you have to do the brilliant basics like a seamless login process, and we also ensure that we know who you are and your preferred way of engaging with The Economist on any device you wish to use. Amazon has set the benchmark for seamless customer experience and we want our customers to have the same experience when dealing with The Economist.

Digital news platforms have to demonstrate value if customers are to subscribe. Digital allows you to get into a two-way communication with your customers to understand their likes and dislikes, what they value and what they do not.

Subscription models are not unique to traditional media companies – we are learning from companies like Netflix and a multitude of Software as a Service companies like Salesforce.
We all have to constantly add more services (value) to the subscription to remain relevant

“If readers are not engaged, then you have your model wrong”

Q: In a video interview with Insightive, you mentioned the value that The Economist places on serendipity and surprises for its readers. In an age where predictive and real-time analytics are becoming increasingly crucial to many media businesses, how is The Economist approaching the personalisation of content and user experience?

I do not think this is a new model. The way somebody reads the print edition of The Economist is a combination of serendipity and personalisation. But the essential difference is that the reader decides how they want to personalise their copy.

We want to take this experience to our digital products where instead of the reader being pushed personalised recommended stories based on analytics and computer algorithms, they decide their interests – for example, culture or country news – which are then combined with serendipity should they wish to pivot their reading experience.

The KPI is engagement. If readers are not engaged, then you have your model wrong.

Q: Based on your current position as a CDO and your previous experience as a CTO, what do you believe are the most important factors shaping a successful digital transformation? What might an unsuccessful digital transformation look like in today’s media landscape?

One-off digital transformation projects that do not take into account business models will be short-lived. I believe you have to start with your business model and align your digital strategy. The real challenge for many companies is that their current business model may not be fit for the future.

CDOs therefore have to build the digital capabilities that allow companies to try something different for a relatively low price and time boxed period. This flexible approach seems missing, as a lot of digital initiatives I see are either IT projects or marketing activity.

An unsuccessful digital transformation in the media landscape would be one where the sum of the parts is less than the whole – where a bunch of projects have not moved the business forward in its market or have not opened up potential new markets.

Q: In a world of rampant outsourcing, what are the advantages of fostering a significant amount of inhouse innovation?
How has collaboration with internal departments and stakeholders informed new digital products at The Economist and helped you to be closer to your customers?

In-house innovation is important, as this where you really have the passions for your customers and the ability to understand their needs. Outsourcing innovation may lead to a cookie cutter approach to innovation, for example, “This worked for company X who are similar to you so it should also work for you.”

Having said this, there is nothing wrong with outsourcing. We outsource for commodity products and partner with companies to help us get our new products out to the customer quickly. However, we differ in that we do not believe in the “throw it over the fence and hope something good comes back” approach, but rather have our in-house teams and outsourcers partner as one team.

Our cross-functional methodology of combining digital teams with marketers, editorial staff, advertisers, outsourcers and essentially customers is leading to a number of new products.
We tend to obsess with how customers are engaging and enjoying our products, and we use data analytics and insights as well as customer feedback to improve or produce new products.



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