A fresh approach to understanding and engaging arts and culture audience boosts subscription

2024-04-24. Rather than viewing their arts and culture readers as a niche segment, the Hamburger Abendblatt has embraced the idea that this audience represents a significant and valuable part of their overall readership. By shifting their mindset, they’ve been able to develop targeted strategies to better serve and convert these readers into loyal subscribers.

by WAN-IFRA External Contributor | April 24, 2024

“Have fun with it, and keep an eye on the numbers.”

We were immediately drawn to this case, as it shows that deploying a creative and iterative approach can generate results in what might be perceived as unlikely places. At Hamburger Abendblatt, last year’s project at the culture desk was about reaching more significant art audiences and turning already interested art readers into subscribers. “It also helped overcome newsroom prejudices around art content”, said the Head of the Editorial Culture Team, Maike Schiller, during the webinar. “It worked because everyone had a lot of fun doing it, and we inspired change in the wider newsroom, which has been very motivating for our team.”


This case is about how local journalism can benefit from a dedicated approach to user needs.


Background and context of the job to be done.


Hamburger Abendblatt is the largest newspaper in the north of Germany. It’s the main title in its region, which goes up to the Baltic and North Seas. Hamburger Abendblatt set up a website in 1996 and launched Germany’s first online newspaper paywall in 2009. Today, most articles are for subscribers only. The site has just short of 2.5 million unique visitors a month (more numbers in the slide deck).


Hamburg is Germany’s second-largest city and a great cultural centre, with 40 museums, 60 theatres, and over 100 clubs. The city is also home to the Reeperbahn Festival (some 700 events at 80 locations). Hamburger Abendblatt’s first podcast, Elphidelity, was produced by the culture desk to coincide with the opening of the great new concert hall on the river, Elbphilharmonie, in 2017. The paper now publishes 30-40 podcasts.


In 2023, the newspaper completed a major reorganisation and changed to an online-first structure, with a central super desk with one digital and one print editor. A number of district-based local teams are also working to increase digital market penetration. In addition, four teams are focused on specific audiences: sports, business, politics, and culture.



What the culture team did

The culture team at Hamburger Abendblatt was a part of the 2023 cohort of the WAN-IFRA Table Stakes program, which is focused on audience development (links below for more info). Maike Schiller’s team was set to work on identifying audiences beyond the traditional culture readers, audiences they didn’t reach. Some were younger, and some were linked to specific events. “For each audience, it’s about making their lives easier, covering all parts of the experience, making it last longer and so on.


Where we used to write a post-concert review, we now do lots of articles ahead of time, including around practical questions like transport. For exhibitions, we might write different articles aimed at different reader groups. We may, for example, do one article about whether an exhibition is fun for children, even though it might not be for them, in addition to our standard article.


Other aspects of the audience-centric approach:

  • The culture desk was turned into a mini publishing team that also includes key people from marketing, tech and data
  • A workflow was set up that guarantees that essential music and theatre reviews are always given priority and published online as soon as possible.
  • They change their approach to stories/sections that are not yet successful. (Success equals driving some subscriptions or finding at least 1000 readers.)
  • The team tries to do more follow-ups on stories that are a success.
  • A dashboard accessible to everyone in the team means it’s easy to track success.


The culture desk has also developed its weekly newsletter, Zugabe (Encore), which now has 5000 subscribers and a 30% open rate. The newsletter has become a good source of advertising revenue, and the culture team plans to launch a special discounted subscription offer to subscribers.

Examples of content – and the results


When Bruce Springsteen came to town, the team created lots of “what you need to know” content, had a fan writing about their experience, and published a quick review before midnight when people were still on the train back from the concert. Hamburg’s Senator of Cultural Affairs, who is a Springsteen fan, also wrote review. All in all the content around Springsteen generated a reach of 116,000 people and 60 subscription sales.


The team produced the traditional article for the popular Caspar David Friedrich exhibition at the Kunsthalle. Still, it then went to the Kunsthalle every day to write about different aspects, including how crowded it was, what you could buy in the museum shop etc. “With the dashboard, we could quickly see what worked and what was less successful with this pop-up art audience,” said Maike.


The new approach to audience development produced some fantastic results both in terms of subscription sales and reach:



Calling all Swifties!

In Hamburg, this year’s biggest cultural event(s) are two Taylor Swift concerts. Maike decided to reach out to the newsroom at large for extra feet on the ground. “You never know who a Swiftie is or who the parent of one is. For that matter, we wrote an e-mail to everyone, asking for ideas. We’re planning a pop-up newsletter, and we’ll need lots of content. It turned out there are many colleagues from other sections were excited to be involved.”


Other plans for 2024 include initiatives to reach even more specific audiences, including around the Reperbahn festival and producing content aimed at the 40,000 people in Hamburg who sing in choirs.


The Culture Desk’s achievement, as Maike Schiller sees it:

  • We have a sharper perspective on what we do
  • We work more closely with the marketing department
  • We have more people at the culture desk who are with us on the same page
  • We have a better appreciation in the newsroom


Useful links and contact information


The case is about the German regional title Hamburger Abendblatt

Their culture section and a review of Taylor Swift’s latest album

Hamburger Abendblatt is part of the Funke media group

Mike Schiller’s presentation slides are here.



Caspar David Friedrich: Lohnt sich die große Ausstellung? (reach 30,000+)

Nachfrage zu groß: Caspar David Friedrich sorgt für Ernüchterung (reach 24,000+)

Kurator: „Bestimmte Ausstellungen müssen teils übervoll sein“ (reach 23,000+)


The latest edition of the WAN-IFRA Table Stakes report, full of great cases of local and regional publishers working on audience development, is free to download for WAN-IFRA members.

​Article in Poynter about creative audience development at independent local news sites in the US.

Contact Cecilia at the WAN-IFRA Innovate Local team if you have questions or know of other relevant, similar, inspiring innovation cases in local news. We will add them to the list.


Next webinar:

Attracting local advertisers: How Amedia is reviving traditional recruitment and real estate advertising, delighting readers with local opportunities

We have all done it. Finding a job and, then, finding a home. Both have fundamentally local focus – the closer the better. While the prevailing view in the industry is that these types of classifieds markets are lost forever, Norwegian news group Amedia has revived them in digital and now lead in driving discovery for non-active seekers.

Presented by Rune Skrindo, Head of Commercial Strategy and Product Manager for Recruitment, Real Estate and Other Classifieds.

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WAN-IFRA External Contributor

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