Webinar takeaways: Lessons from publishers with successful digital subscription strategies

As part of its European Digital Media Awards competition this year, WAN-IFRA introduced a Members’ Choice Award in the category of Best Paid Content Strategy. The three finalists showcased their successful strategies during a webinar last week.

by Neha Gupta | April 21, 2020

Danuta Bregula (Director of Subscriptions Strategy, Gazeta Wyborcza), Fredrik Dyrnes Svendsen (Senior Content Developer, Amedia) and Helena Sund (Senior Editor at Expressen premium) joined the WAN-IFRA Webinar to make a case for why their brand’s reader revenue model was the best.

Attendees of the webinar had a chance to vote during and after the webinar and the winners (which will then qualify for the World Digital Media Awards competition) will be announced tomorrow.

Here are our takeaways from the finalists’ presentations:

Gazeta Wyborcza (Poland)

First published in 1989, Gazeta Wyborcza is the biggest newspaper in central Europe and produces 20 local editions besides the national edition. Poland has a culture of free digital news consumption and does not have a tradition of either newspaper home delivery or paywalls. People prefer making bank payments rather than using credit cards and are resistant to recurring payments.

Bregula is part of the core team leading transformation (traffic sources, social media, product, audience, development, reader revenue) at Gazeta Wyborcza. As of February 2020, the company had 240,000 digital-only subscribers, but this milestone did not come easy.

In 2018, only 11 percent of the brand’s subscribers were ready to opt in for a recurring subscription. Users not sharing credit card details resulted in a higher churn rate and a low average revenue per user (ARPU).

Subscription timeline

Subscription timeline

As a quick fix, the company began selling one-off, discounted, annual/quarterly access, which meant avoiding fighting a high churn rate on a monthly basis. Even though this resulted increased subscriptions to 10,000, about 80 percent of the users did not renew their subscriptions, and the long-term aim of having a stable revenue model was unfulfilled.

Gazeta Wyborcza’s strategy to tackle this problem:

  • Stopped offering free trials: While free trials are a sure way of attracting new users, it proved very ineffective for retaining them. The churn rate from the free trials was through the roof, Bregula said.
  • Progressive pricing testing: Through extensive trials, the company figured out a combination of pricing, length of introductory offers and the number of stages that suited them. “While evaluating these variations, we take into consideration the balance between the volume of sales (the number of newly acquired subscribers), the churn rate and the estimated lifetime value,” Bregula said.
  • Made recurring payments the user’s best choice: The company made attractive subscription offers available only if a user opted for recurring payment. They made the one-off payment option 30 percent more expensive and also made it visually less prominent on the webpage.

Within a year of implementing these changes, Gazeta was able to reduce the number of promotional offers, register a 50 percent drop in churn and a much higher ARPU. The share of users with recurring payments grew at a rate of 70 percent and 2019 saw a 30 percent overall increase in subscription growth.

Print and digital subscriptions

Print and digital subscriptions

Amedia AS (Norway)

Amedia AS, the second-largest media company in Norway, produces 74 local newspapers and one national newspaper. Fredrik Dyrnes Svendsen, a Senior Content Developer, said the company’s biggest challenge is that the majority of its subscribers are older than 50.

“Our content tends to be relevant for people over 50 years of age, simply because they are our biggest target group,” Svendsen said. “However, one of our aims, a year ago, was to even out this imbalance and attract people under 40.”

How did Amedia engage millennials?

The company address this two phases.

  • During Phase One, the company conducted in-depth interviews with 72 subscribers from six of its newspapers in the under-40 age group to grasp their satisfaction level with their products. The brand also analysed 1000 articles to determine what hooked younger audiences. The findings were then introduced to Amedia’s various newsrooms with a preliminary dashboard, enabling editors and journalists to understand how their journalism engaged younger cohorts.
Well read stories across age groups

Well read stories across age groups

  • During Phase Two, the company analysed 3000 articles, discussed its hypothesis with six newsrooms and formulated a playbook for how to write content for people in the 30-39 age group. One key finding was that, once journalists started talking to younger sources for their stories, the brand began attracting younger readers. “As a result, our reportage became more relevant to millennials,” Svendsen said.


Amedia found that key topics that engaged younger readers were real estate, start-ups, smart solutions and loans.

After a year of implementing these changes, the brand’s subscription growth is now mainly driven by users younger than 40. “The COVID-19 crisis has shown us that younger audiences are just as interested in hard news as older people,” Svendsen said. “We have never had so many people under 40 reading our articles.”

Change yoy percent

Change yoy percent

Expressen (Sweden)

Expressen, published by Bonnier and counterpart to the publisher’s quality daily, Dagens Nyheter, is a liberal newspaper that was founded in 1944, during World War II, to fight Nazism in Sweden. The company has a newsroom staff of 270. During the past five years, the brand embarked on a digital journey that has produced impressive results:

  • growing its number of mobile users more than 6x: from 800,000 to 5 million in a country that has a total population of 10.3 million, and
  • boosting its market share from 19 percent to 49 percent.

“We are on the top in Sweden in terms of Facebook engagement, Google visibility and print paper,” said Helena Sund, Senior Editor.

Zero to 70,000 subscribers with a data-driven approach

Dashboard analytics

Dashboard analytics

Expressen entered the subscription game much later than its contemporaries and launched its digital subscription service, Premium, only in December 2018. “We entered the subscription market late so that we could concentrate on becoming the biggest news source in Sweden,” said Sund. “Once we hit the 5 million user mark, we felt the time was right to launch Premium.”

Expressen reaches 70 percent of Sweden’s population through its newspapers and website. The company’s goals, therefore, in the runup to launching Premium was to make the product indispensable by providing quality content and attracting as many subscribers as possible without negatively affecting the brand’s already established digital reach.

How did they do it?
The brand studied the successes and mistakes of its competitors, and shared all of their findings with all employees. Editorial, analytics, tech and commercial teams worked closely together to make smart, data-driven decisions. Three key strategies which propelled the company to success were:

  • Data democratisation: Expressen made easy-to-follow data available through digital screens in the newsroom, and installed customised dashboards for each editorial department, visualising their goals and progress. Lessons learned from data were sent out weekly by the Premium team, allowing everyone to act in a data-driven manner.

    An Expressen campaign

    An Expressen campaign

  • Dynamic paywall: The company built its own tool to manage its paywall, which removed dependency on third-party solutions and provided flexibility; so much so that a marketer could easily run a campaign without involving the tech team. Each article on the website possesses the ability to have its own unique paywall.
  • Content consistency: Since Expressen uses a Freemium paywall model, with 95 percent of its content open and 5 percent behind a paywall, the company decided to charge readers only for its best content – features, human-interest stories, sports analysis, and articles that guide readers in difficult situations such as real estate or health.

In addition to going from 0 to 70,000 subscribers in only one year, Expressen also met its revenue target and exceeded its goals for churn and retention; all this while increasing its digital reach.

Neha Gupta

Multimedia Journalist

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