Google Digital Immersion Week: Lessons from Schibsted’s digital subscription journey

When Scandinavian media group Schibsted launched its first paid digital subscription product 18 years ago, few people outside the company had faith in the new business model. The doubters have well and truly been proven wrong.

With Schibsted passing the impressive milestone of 1 million digital subscribers across all brands this month, the Google Digital Immersion Week, in partnership with FIPP and FT Strategies, explored the company’s paid content success by going behind the scenes at one of its main titles, Aftenposten.

Oslo-based Aftenposten is Norway’s largest subscription newspaper with around 238,000 subscribers, half of which are digital. While experimenting with paid content as early as 2003, the brand took the decision to go all-in on user revenue in 2015, launching a hybrid model consisting of a meter model offering eight articles, before becoming primarily a freemium site in 2018.

To get the most out of its content, Aftenposten has relied heavily on data and analytical tools, identifying the personas clicking on stories and pinpointing the features users are reading and converting on.

“If you have data you can trust that you will get an immediate response from you audience – either something works or it doesn’t,” said Bård Skaar Viken, who is the Chief Commercial Officer at Aftenposten and director of Consumer Business at Schibsted. “And when you are making a big strategic move it’s obviously wise to have some data to support you. You can A/B test everything and dive deeper into any kind of issue.

“Actually knowing if people are reading 10 per cent, 50 per cent or 100 per cent of your story is the kind of metrics that will help you develop product and also influence your engagement.”

The newspaper’s decision to prioritise paid content has seen a rapid change in its revenue streams. In 2007 more than 60 per cent of Aftenposten’s revenue came from advertising. Today close to 85 per cent of all its revenues come from subscriptions.

We have spent a fair amount of time on visualisation and making boring spreadsheets more accessible through dashboards that people actually want to interact with.

Bård Skaar Viken

Pulling together

To ensure better alignment and coordination across the business, Aftenposten has drawn up a new framework that sees its growth strategy being run by the commercial department, the product strategy run by the product and tech department, and a content strategy being run by the newsroom.

“What we have tried to do is to identify users and segments where it’s possible to grow further, and target these through commercial activities, through product development and also through renewing and optimising our current content and journalism,” said Viken.

“We have spent a lot of time trying to implement the framework and making sure we are aligned across the whole newspaper. The newsroom is no longer disconnected from the rest of the organisation. The editors are listening to input from the commercial side and actively seeking input from product teams. What we do in practical terms is spend a lot of time in management groups, making sure that this new initiative will work.”

It has also been crucial for Aftenposten to identify its Northstar goals and find the right metrics to measure development.

“We have a lot of different metrics that we follow, like strategic KPIs and more operational metrics, but the one measurement that is most predictive of important long-term success is engagement and it’s the number of daily active subscribers how many subscribers visit us each day,” said Viken. “We have very high ambitions to try and increase the number of daily active subscribers.”

We were able to increase the prices for the print magazine by adding the bundle of digital product as well.

Bård Skaar Viken

For Aftenposten, the most difficult and time-consuming part of its subscription strategy has been identifying the personas consuming the newspaper’s content.

“For us, it’s about identity and profiles. We need to know who our users are and get them to log in,” says Viken. “We have to abide by privacy laws and make sure that we are allowed to track data and have consent in terms of those cases where we use data actively, either for analytics or communication or marketing.

“We have spent a lot of time of on data infrastructure and making data workable. You have to make sure you track the right stuff and improve your data quality. It’s also about getting data out in the organisation, so we have spent a fair amount of time on visualisation and making boring spreadsheets more accessible through dashboards that people actually want to interact with.”

An important building block in making the strategy work is investing in new competences. “We slowly built and recruited new competences within data science and data engineering,” added Viken. “Finding new competences has been key to our success.”

Making the most of magazines

Aftenposten has also invested a lot of time in monetising its popular stable of magazines that cover everything from food to cottages. As part of its first-generation experiments, it launched standalone sites for of its print products 10 years ago, something Viken admits has not paid dividends.

“The last couple of years we have moved away from this because we see that it’s hard to recruit new people, it’s hard to monetise and we haven’t been able to build a bridge between our digital offering and our print subscription.”

More promising has been e-magazine bundle product Magasin+, which offers access to all of Aftenposten’s magazines and some external titles. While the app does not generate enough revenue to finance magazine newsrooms in the future, it has seen a 46 per cent spike in subscribers and is particularly popular with older readers.

Something that has been a resounding success is A-magasinet, a weekly magazine from Aftenposten that is distributed to all of Schibsted’s print subscribers in Norway. With a mammoth readership of 700,000 it has become a core part of the Aftenposten digital subscription offering.

“Using content from our magazines and making it available as a part of the premium offering of Aftenposten has been a massively successful,” said Viken. “We convert more subscribers from A-magasinet content than from any other section on Aftenposten.no.”

We have to accept that some magazines will never become digital. […] You should let them live happily as a print product, or kill them.

Bård Skaar Viken

Looking towards the future, the publisher has launched Aftenposten Historie (a history magazine featuring new and archive content) as a new content vertical on Aftenposten.no, which readers can get as a standalone digital subscription and as a bundle with the print magazine.

“We are able to monetise this in three ways that we didn’t manage before,” said Viken. “Firstly, the stories from Aftenposten are nice to read and convert well. The second is that digital only and subscription are, so far, popular among our readers, so we are able to attract new subscribers. And thirdly, we were able to increase the prices for the print magazine by adding the bundle of digital product as well.

“It’s still early days, we launched this summer and, but what we see is that one to two per cent of all new subscribers to Aftenposten comes from Aftenposten Historie,” said Viken.  “And we also have people signing up for the standalone offer as well.”

A second ongoing experiment Aftenposten is carrying out is the launch of an edtech platform tied to the Aftenposten  Junior newspaper for kids, which has 30,000 subscribers.

“We’re trying to get local communities and schools and teachers to sign up and use Aftenposten,” said Viken. “We’ve had more than 10,000 students trying the product. We’ve managed to identify a brand new opportunity that fits the Junior brand very well and can perhaps be a brand new revenue stream for us.”

Throughout its magazine monetisation journey, Aftenposten has, said Viken, learnt some valuable lessons.

“It took us some time to realise that magazines, when they go online, are niche services so the landscape is highly competitive and this obviously influence how we think. It’s also super hard to build successful standalone niches with large audience direct traffic and significant monetisation behind it.

“Another thing we have found is that it’s not one-size-fits-all. You have to look for unique opportunities for each brand, and the best way of doing that is to talk to your audience and listen to your own data.

“And then we have to accept that some magazines will never become digital. That is where we are in our strategic discussion right now. You should let them live happily as a print product, or kill them.”

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