How The Economist Uses Shopify Plus to Test Ideas, Delight Its Audience, & Invent the Future

How The Economist Uses Shopify Plus to Test Ideas, Delight Its Audience, & Invent the Future

Where do you do your best thinking?

If you’re Ron Diorio, it’s in the future...

Leaps and bounds ahead of everyone else.

“Connecting the dots is a really important skill,” Diorio says. “The question is how fast can you do it?”

Diorio is the guy in charge of innovation at The Economist, the British newspaper shaped like a magazine founded in the 1840s to offer insight and opinion on international news, politics, business, finance, science, and technology. Part of Diorio’s job is to make sure the paper is around another 170-years which means avoiding the irrelevant fate of so many other old media properties.

Not only does the task require the creation of new streams of revenue, but doing so while simultaneously pleasing a discerning audience in new ways; readers of The Economist are upscale, international, and expect insight and perspective that can’t be found elsewhere. “This is a unique audience and it’s our job to figure out what it is that might interest them,” Diorio says.

Ensuring The Economist evolves in ways that keep it relevant amid changing and sometimes fickle media consumption patterns requires a unique skill; the ability to see the future and possibly even shape a portion of it.

Fortunately for The Economist, that’s exactly where Diorio excels...

A Lifetime of Fortunate Accidents

Diorio is routinely years ahead of major changes in technology and consumer preference...

He’s just too humble to take much credit for it.

For instance, years ago Diorio found himself on the cutting edge of digital photography when he began enlarging low-resolution images and using filters to uniquely polish or imaginatively touch them up. His work was immediately embraced for its innovation and put on display in museums and exhibits around the world.

“I was really fortunate,” Diorio says. “The work I did has been put on display in places I would never have dreamed of.”

That’s not the only time Diorio’s curiosity and imagination landed him on the cutting edge long before the masses:

  • By chance, Diorio had access to a computer long before his peers as he was randomly seated right next to the first computer purchased by a former employer
    • Diorio just happened to be intrigued by sound and began creating compelling audio narratives just prior to the mainstream birth of the internet which allowed his work to spread and become popular

      Similarly, the projects Diorio worked on with an underground filmmaker as well as the television show he produced in New York City are examples of Diorio’s pioneering use of video well before technology democratized its creation and distribution.

      It’s the type of work that doesn’t go unnoticed for long…

      So it’s no surprise that The Economist came calling in 2000 looking to build out its audio, video, email, and mobile offerings. “I had been a long time reader of The Economist,” Diorio notes. “It was again another fortunate accident that I couldn’t have imagined fifteen years ago.”

      Fast forward to today and Diorio finds himself wrestling with tomorrow; The Economist is in the business of educating intelligent audiences and creating innovative learning environments that generate value for both the paper and its audience.

      But what does that look like today, tomorrow, or even years down the line?

      “I’m pretty fortunate to be surrounded by great people,” Diorio says of his co-workers at The Economist. “I’m in a room where everyone is smarter than me and isn’t afraid to call out ideas or work that isn’t up to par.”

      It’s one reason the paper’s readers are increasingly becoming viewers...

      The Future of Learning

      The Economist doesn’t just sell magazines once a week to the intellectually curious…

      Today, the organization is satisfying its audience’s thirst for knowledge on demand and online in a way that uniquely marries editorial content with ecommerce. It’s called Learning.ly and it offers online learning course that enable students to learn about leadership, entrepreneurship, and finance from some of the world’s most renowned domain experts.

      “Learning.ly is so different for us,” Diorio says. “It’s the first time we’ve used outside content in a curated way to help our audience better understand the world.”

      Here’s how it works…

      The idea is for The Economist to identify and partner with people who possess niche expertise of some kind to create a two-sided marketplace; one in which an expert creates a course that is offered for sale to an audience that is passionate about paying to better themselves and their future potential.

      It’s expertise that is disseminated widely via The Economist Group’s ecommerce platform. However, the standards an expert must meet to create a course are much higher than many of the competing online courses now available.

      “It’s editorially vetted,” Diorio says. “They have to show us they have the required knowledge and then we actually perform a human review to make sure the course meets all of the policies in place to ensure it’s of high quality.”

      The value proposition is three-fold; besides creating a new stream of revenue for The Economist, Learning.ly also provides a source of revenue to expert instructors or businesses while simultaneously offering its audience access to sophisticated training it might otherwise not be able to get.

      In addition to courses in business, finance, and economics Learning.ly offers training designed to intrigue its audience just as The Economist does with its sometimes provocative headlines and articles:

        • How to Reinvent Yourself Mid-Career
        • How to Get & Stay Creative
        • How to Develop Gravitas

      “This is one way we’re differentiating ourselves,” Diorio says. “We can take the experts we feature in the magazine and provide an opportunity for them to connect deeper with our audience.”

      It’s something that might ordinarily take months…

      But Diorio and his team pulled it off in a few weeks thanks to a strategic partnership.

      A Culture of Experimentation

      The idea that an ecommerce platform like Shopify Plus, an enterprise-grade solution for high volume merchants, may also be used as a tool to quickly experiment with and test business ideas, is the type of innovation readers of The Economist have come to admire and respect.

      Besides Learning.ly, which was creatively designed by We Make Websites, The Economist Group is using its ecommerce platform as a type of business incubator that can efficiently help the organization determine whether there’s a market for a product.

      “It’s almost like Shopify Plus is creating land for us to build things where there was no land before,” Diorio says.

      Rather than worry about technology and how to overcome challenges like geotargeting, accepting multiple currencies, and shipping products around the globe, Shopify Plus provides The Economist a consumer-friendly platform that easily integrates with other applications that allow Diorio and his team to focus on creating new products for their audience.

      “There really are no technical limitations now,” Diorio says. “If we want to do something all we have to do is plug it in and go.”

      Not having to worry about laborious and time consuming technical issues allows The Economist to experiment with new ecommerce ideas. For instance, many of the audience’s upscale audience members are wine aficionados. The platform is helping Diorio quickly validate whether a wine club or wine gift box might be commercially successful.

      “We can test new business ideas so quickly now,” Diorio says. “The opportunity is there for us to create offerings that allow us to earn recurring revenue.”

      The ability to rapidly iterate, or even quickly kill projects that aren’t successful, allows The Economist to continually experiment while still respecting its audience by offering only high-quality items that have established proof of concept. “Everyone at Shopify is so responsive,” Diorio says. “We have a lot of questions and a lot of people working on projects but Shopify is always there to help us.”

      The Future of Habits

      We all know habits are hard to break…

      It’s why The Economist is working to form new habits among its audience members. “The Economist is a habit,” Diorio says. “We’re trying to create additional habits around that core habit.”

      For instance, the paper is presenting digital content in new ways while simultaneously attempting to extend its reach to new audiences:

      • Daily curating five top stories its core audience needs to know about but offering those stories in ways that get to the point quickly and may be consumed on the go
        • Creating applications, infographics, and short films to see how the paper might be able to engage with children or young adults who notoriously aren’t members of its audience

           

          The objective is to provide audience members with valuable forward thinking content, via a variety of channels, that focuses on issues that won’t be covered in depth elsewhere until they become better known or even mainstream. “We try to identify what businesses eighteen months down the road are going to be talking about,” Diorio says. “If we can routinely think ahead and provide value in advance our audience will remember reading about a particular issue months earlier thanks to us.”

          The content, as much of it is now, is being or will be distributed multidimensionally:

          • Traditional magazine
          • Nine-hour audio magazine
          • The Economist Radio

             

            “Not only do people want to listen to the magazine in their cars and elsewhere,” Diorio says. “But we’re now trying to get through the nine hours faster because our audience wants to listen at triple speed.”

            By creating new habits and consumption opportunities, The Economist will also be better positioned to create new ecommerce products that bridge the gap between the content consumed and the lifestyle its audience wants to live.

            In addition to Learning.ly, Diorio says these products include:

                • Niche-specific books that might complement Learning.ly courses
                • On demand t-shirts printed with a chart or graphic of special interest to audience members
                • Mugs or cups stamped with content audience members find valuable

            With Shopify Plus, The Economist will have the ability to use applications like embeddable buy buttons to creatively sell and cross-promote ecommerce products across its various digital properties. For instance, a Learning.ly course that pairs well with a piece of content that is trending or popular somewhere besides the Learning.ly website may be sold alongside that piece of content regardless of where it lives.

            “There’s no risk when we experiment on Shopify,” Diorio says. “We’re really excited to look for more of these opportunities to put great products into the world risk-free.”

            It’s the future according to Diorio…

            And it’s coming to a screen near you.