As part of the Accelerator, Aftenposten, Norway’s largest newspaper, ran a webinar on its winning strategies for digital subscriber acquisition.
Norway is a country of just 5.2 million people, but Aftenposten has 250,000 total subscribers, including 108,000 digital-only subscribers. The publisher launched its digital subscription business (a metered model) in 2013. Over the years, data and testing has led to a hybrid approach; 70 percent of Aftenposten’s coverage is metered (users can read six stories per device per week before they’re asked to pay) and 30 percent is locked for non-subscribers.
Breaking news and other standard news stories are part of the metered offering while feature and investigative stories are behind the paywall, Karoline Fossland, Aftenposten’s acting development editor, told Subscriptions Accelerator participants as part of a recent webinar.
To coordinate its strategy and to make its content decisions be more data-driven, Aftenposten created an Editorial Development department in the newsroom. The five-member team, temporarily led by Fossland, sits at the intersection of editorial, business, and product strategy, and tries to develop new editorial products that will help convert subscribers. The team has existed within the newsroom for about a year.
“We carve out strategy on bigger editorial problems, such as what is the best way for Aftenposten to cover a terror attack,” Fossland said. “And we work to empower mostly middle managers in the newsroom to know when to use data and strategy in their everyday work. We encourage them to take positions informed by data, but we encourage them also to combine it also with editorial experience and journalistic gut feeling.”
As part of its work, the editorial development team is constantly working with journalists and editors throughout the newsroom and it’s also testing and learning through different types of experiments.
Here are three examples of successful experiments Aftenposten’s editorial development team has run, and what they’ve learned from them:
1. Cover arts and culture creatively
Culture reporting, such as book reviews or stories about new art exhibitions, were historically among the most underperforming stories on Aftenposten’s site.
“This is a content area that people struggle to make perform online,” Fossland said. “We didn’t have resources to keep making journalism that didn’t do anything commercially, we had to fix it.”
The editorial development team worked with reporters in the culture department to go through some workshops that forced them to think about how they could better meet reader needs.
As a result of that process, Aftenposten began to more tightly curate its culture coverage and present it in a more reader-friendly way. Instead of publishing a random stand-alone book review on a Tuesday afternoon, for instance, it would publish a story titled “Top 5 Books You Should Read over Easter Holiday.”
It also introduced new products such as a biweekly email newsletter that is sent out on Friday evenings with recommendations for what readers should watch on TV or on platforms like Netflix.
Due to its new approach, Aftenposten increased subscriber pageviews by 34 percent from May through October last year and conversions increased by 291 percent from Q1 to Q3, Fossland said.
“We produce a lot less content than we used to do. We’re focused on writing less, but focusing on very specific user needs when they’re published,” Fossland said.
2. Historic data helps
In the lead up to Norway’s parliamentary elections last fall, Aftenposten began looking for ways to convert subscribers from its political coverage.
To get ideas for coverage, the publisher looked at historic search data from the most recent election in 2013 to see what readers were most interested in.
One of the most searched terms from the previous election was “What do the political parties stand for?,” Fossland said. With that knowledge in hand, Aftenposten created an interactive guide to the different parties. Readers would answer questions about their beliefs on different policies, and then the guide would tell them which party most aligned with their views.
Aftenposten published the guide three months before the election and then bought search advertisements for the relevant keywords. The guide resulted about 1,100 new subscribers, with one-third of those coming from Google.
“A lot of competitors had the same service for free, but it was a matter of having trustworthy content and putting it in front of users when they had the user need,” Fossland said. “That made us get our conversion goal for election coverage.”
3. Niches are nice
Last August, Aftenposten hired a young reporter to soft-launch a new vertical focused on career-related coverage. It didn’t market the vertical, and it just posted the stories within the normal news stories.
Because of the financial trouble that’s afflicted the news industry, Aftenposten hasn’t really hired any new full-time journalists in a decade, Fossland said. The move to create a new vertical was an attempt to see if the publication could finance a new reporter directly through digital subscriptions.
Aftenposten saw that jobs coverage was an area that readers were interested in, and it calculated that it would need 1,000 new subscribers in one year to pay for a reporter.
And within the first nine months, 4,000 new subscribers are attributed to careers coverage and the reporter covering the beat has been hired full time.
“I don’t think this is a strategy that would fit all journalist areas and, of course, if you calculated one-to-one, most content would not be profitable by itself; it’s part of a bigger package that you pay for,” Fossland said. “ But there are some niches that will convert really well, and for us that’s been a strategy for how to grow our newsroom with low risk financially.”
The Facebook Journalism Project: Local News Subscriptions Accelerator is a pilot program designed to help news publishers build their digital subscription revenues. Funded and organized by The Facebook Journalism Project, the 3-month program includes hands-on workshops led by news industry veteran Tim Griggs, a grantmaking program organized by The Lenfest Institute for Journalism, and regular reports on best practices authored by both The Lenfest Institute and the Facebook Journalism Project.
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