D2C Summit: Carolin Hulshoff Pol on BILD’s digital subscription success

FIPP’s Direct-to-consumer (D2C) summit kicked off this week with a look at how one of Europe’s biggest newsstand newspapers has become a leading paid content publisher. Joining James Hewes, President and CEO of FIPP was Carolin Hulshoff Pol, Managing Director for BILD, part of German publishers Axel Springer, to talk about building a successful digital subscription business.

“You really have to focus on the strengths of the brand and work out what the exclusive product is that you have,” said Pol, talking at a time when the Axel Springer group has just surpassed one million paid subscriptions across all of its titles.

“You have to try, fail and change, and ask your audience what they want. And you should not be seduced by too many reduced-price offers to speed up your numbers in the beginning. If you start with a price tag that’s too low you can’t get it up again.”

BILD’s subscription business really started to go grow when the newspaper decided to use a subscription model online – launching the BILD digital offer for free in 1996. In 2013 the publishers launched its paid content model, BILD Plus.

 We saw it as the only way to survive – that you get users to pay for content. 

BILD Plus allows you to read an amount of articles for free on the website and pay for others. The base price is EUR€7.99 per month for a regular BILD Plus account which gives you access to all online articles, live streams and documentaries. With BILD Plus Premium you have access to all e-papers and different local versions of newspapers at a cost of EUR€12.99.

BILD launched its model when it was still unusual to pay for digital access. “All other members in the market thought we were crazy,” said Pol. “But we, on the other hand, saw it as the only way to survive – that you get users to pay for content. Our journey is ongoing because we are still looking at what we can do with our brand.”

What Axel Springer has really excelled in is looking at how business is changing and how they can react to that, added Pol. “Our board says, if there is something that is disruptive, let’s do it by ourselves and let’s not wait for the others. That makes us really go forward and trust that we can find a way to get money for the business models that we have.

“We always look where the audience is, if there is a new audience we could reach and what is relevant for our own ecosystem. We want to reach the customer at the right place and at the right time, through our different channels – whether that is a younger audience via Instagram or Facebook or our print users who are generally a bit older.

“What is relevant to all our business models is that it’s content based in the end and that it fits to our purpose – BILD stands for fighting and standing up for others and giving them a voice.”

Striking the right balance

The fact that BILD moved to the paid model in 2013 didn’t mean that the publisher turned off its advertising, especially with 5.5 million daily uniques to the site.

“For us it’s quite clear that you can keep both,” said Pol. “The discussion we had before we started that model was whether we can save the money on all sides. Implementing the premium model seemed like the right step in 2013 because it allowed us to further grow our reach while starting and generating revenues through the paid content model and it really worked out for us.

“We have over 540,000 paying subscribers and the reach is still quite high, reaching more than 50 per cent of the German population with our news, so 43.8 million people every month.

“And over 70 per cent of our traffic is direct traffic. That really helps in monetisation. We still have the reach and that brings in advertisements. Our experience is there is no contradiction in a paid content model and relevant reach.”

The importance of print and the right culture

According to Pol, Germany is “way behind” the US when it comes to the willingness to subscribe and the willingness to pay for digital subscriptions, but thanks to Netflix and Amazon the German subscription economy has been growing since 2015. It is important, she said, that print is not left behind.

“Most important to us is massive growth in the digital business and the business model without the structural decline of the print business,” she said. “It’s still got money to make. If we really want to be Germany’s voice we can’t leave out one target group.

From the first day on you have to drive engagement and make sure that users download your app. We need them to subscribe to newsletters and reduce involuntary churn like when they get a new credit card.

“So we want to have the massive growth of our subscriber base and keep them loyal to us. This is important for both the print and digital businesses. To keep our customers loyal we use special offers for subscribers like discounts for events, or discounts for our BILD shop.”

Pol revealed that during the Covid outbreak, in addition to a upswing in digital subscriptions, print subscriptions surged as well. “It was up 40 per cent which was a real surprise for us. So, in the end, we know that there is a shift in our business model but we are convinced that we need all the existing models to survive.”

Key to BILD’s success has been the ability to build the right internal culture that’s focused of digital subscriptions.

“It wasn’t that easy because you have to really change the mindset,” said Pol. “What was really hard for our editors in the newsroom is that they are journalists – they want to tell great stories to the biggest audience. At the beginning it was tough for them to hear that what is really special and unique you want to put to a small audience.

“But we really put them into it because we don’t have a technical base that decides what goes to Plus and what goes for free – so it’s a journalistic decision that we make. We showed them the numbers on the news desk and they started challenging themselves and tried to be like their own algorithm saying – if we do it a certain way it will lead to more subscribers.

“They were especially proud when we got more subscribers through their great and unique content than by a marketing campaign.”

Acquisitions, onboarding and a new venture

According to Pol, BILD’s main source of new subscribers are the existing users they get online – more than 25 million every month. The publisher tries to retarget them through online channels, whether through engaging content or through price promotions.

“Our most successful marketing channel are display campaigns on BILD.de,” says Pol. “We have struggled somewhat with social media but have seen good results on Instagram. We also see that we really have to push the engagement as fast as possible by personalised article recommendation or push messages.”

Over 70 per cent of our traffic is direct traffic.

An effective onboarding process is also crucial. “From the first day on you have to drive engagement and make sure that users download your app. We need them to subscribe to newsletters and reduce involuntary churn like when they get a new credit card. We highlight that they might have a payment problem very early and often.”

Pol said first party data is key for BILD with the company building first party and second party data stock and trying to get users to register through its service to build a locked-in relationships with its readers.

Looking towards the future, BILD is launching a new TV channel soon after having great success with video. “In 2020 eight of the top 10 converting contents have been video related – documentaries or live streams,” says Pol. “We have made sure documentaries we produce on our own fits to the news we cover online. And live streams of boxing, MMA and soccer have also worked really well. That is why we have decided on a new adventure and launching a TV channel. We are all pretty excited.”

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