The major division in thinking about how to attract and convert news audiences seems to be based on whether a publisher’s brand or content is considered the primary draw.

At least that’s how the discussion played out during Monday at the INMA 2017 World Congress on Monday. Following a morning of high-level strategic thinking, the afternoon panel on got down to the business of making money, particularly in the digital sphere.

Perspectives came from Tobias Henning, general manager premium for Axel Springer’s Bild; Siri Holstad Johannessen, head of sales and marketing at Schibsted; and Suzi Watford, executive vice president and chief marketing officer at The Wall Street Journal.

Their stated subscription approaches were as varied as their home countries:

  • Bild in Germany uses a freemium model and is open to referral relationships with all of the top social networks (although Apple News does not operate in Germany yet).
  • Most of Schibsted’s titles in Norway use a tailored mix of freemium and paywall, but the group eschews all the online referral engines in favour of exclusive ownership of its subscriber relationships.
  • Anything beyond headlines and leads on The Wall Street Journal is now completely behind a membership paywall, with the U.S. publisher making a closely watched decision earlier this year to disable Google’s first-article-free feature.

Tobias Henning, general manager/premium for Bild, talks paywalls with INMA World Congress.
Tobias Henning, general manager/premium for Bild, talks paywalls with INMA World Congress.

Bild switched from paid to free basic subscriptions for its Web site when it became obvious the publisher was unable to reach its strategic goals for the digital operation by turning away all non-paying customers, Henning said. The print product has a strong brand in Germany, but its online iteration, apparently not so much.

Since changing to freemium, “awareness is much better,” Henning said, now that users get 80% of Bild’s articles for free online, with paid upgrades available.

Johannessen (who stressed she does not work for Apple despite her first name) made it clear that Schibsted’s digital subscription approach is data driven. And looking at the data, “we saw that only 9% of our readers actually hit the paywall and we didn’t convert enough,”  she said.

Siri Holstad Johannessen, head of sales and marketing at Schibsted, discusses a data-driven subscription strategy.
Siri Holstad Johannessen, head of sales and marketing at Schibsted, discusses a data-driven subscription strategy.

Once they poked a few holes in the wall, “we saw it instantly. It started giving us a burst in conversions,” she said. “For the last years, we have been working with optimising — optimising through Facebook, optimising though data. Using all the data and insights that we gathered.

“What’s the next step? Now we’re working on the dynamic paywall. And we’re concentrating on three different focuses: frequency, content, and time.”

The idea is that frequent visitors might get fewer free views, with rare visitors getting more free content and first-timers having a period of unlimited access.”

Johannessen’s advice for other publishers: “If you have a meter model, experiment with the meter. If you have a freemium model, you can experiment with a share of locked articles. And remember you can always be dynamic.”

Watford has been with News Corp for 17 years, offering a long-term perspective on digital subscriptions.

Suzi Watford, executive vice president and chief marketing officer at The Wall Street Journal, discusses a membership model.
Suzi Watford, executive vice president and chief marketing officer at The Wall Street Journal, discusses a membership model.

“What’s really interesting for us is that it is no longer a question of how do you make that transition to digital, but rather what is the optimal model,” she said. “And that’s what we set out to really understand when we looked how we were going to rebuild the paywall.”

That eventually led the Journal to what it calls its membership model, and then eventually to a stunning shift this past February in the publisher’s relationship to the world’s largest search referral source.

“Many of you know that Google discriminates against paid news,” she explained. “As a paid news site, you don’t have the same visibility as a free Web site. The way you get around that is that you have Google First Click Free.”

“The thing that we found,” Watford continued, “is that there were almost a million customers each month who were systematically abusing the Google First Click Free policy. They were going back and forth, copying headlines, and basically reading The Wall Street Journal for free. … So we made a conscious decision to turn Google First Click Free off — after a lot of conversations and a lot of tests, I should hasten to add.

“But I don’t really know how you can have a conversation about whether you’re freemium, metered, or whatever without really addressing what your relationship is with Google in the first-click-free model,” Watford concluded.

WSJ is continuing to fine tune its strategy, to ensure that people can still share articles and that its memberships come with obvious value. And now it’s charting 46 variables about its members in order to understand each individual’s “propensity to subscribe” under different conditions.

So has it all worked?

“Yes it has,” Watford said. “We’ve seen a significant increase in sales” and a 4X increase in conversions from Google traffic. 

Watford’s summary advice: “Think about the customer, not just the content.”