Digital Publishing Reader Revenue
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Membership, revenue and subscriptions: Insights from TU Media and Die Zeit

The one is a niche publisher of an engineering magazine in Norway, the other a national weekly newspaper in Germany. TU Media and Die Zeit might be worlds apart in terms of focus but they share one common success story – extremely effective subscriber strategies. During two sessions at FIPP’s 43rd World Media Congress they shared the secrets behind some eye-catching sign-up numbers.

Remarkably, Oslo-based TU Media, publishers of Teknisk Ukeblad, which has been around since 1854, started its subscription business from scratch three years ago. The company is now at a point where, in a few years, it will be its largest source of revenue, having recruited 13,500 digital subscriptions. The decision to turn to subscribers was driven by a nosedive in tech job ads, with TU Media reducing the number of issues of its magazine, while growing its digital business and moving into events.

For Die Zeit – a newspaper based in Hamburg with a circulation of 522,000 (of which 72 per cent is sold to subscribers) – the last three years have been about going beyond the paywall and forging a deeper relationship with their readers through membership programme Friends of Die Zeit.

“We want to invest in the loyalty of our subscribers because they make quality journalism and longterm research possible,” explained Project Manager Lennart Schneider, adding that they’ve so far recruited 78,000 members. “We didn’t want to treat them as mere customers, but as friends.”

Friendship is about meeting up and talking and that’s what we did – face-to-face contact that made subscribers feel they made stories possible and are part of a cultural, interesting, flourishing community of other Die Zeit readers.

Wencke Tzanakakis, Die Zeit

Keeping promises and building a community

TU Media’s business model is based on giving subscribers access to their four websites for B2B and technology. Subscribers can choose between monthly and yearly subscriptions with a trial period of one month for yearly only. TU started by putting two articles a day behind their paywall and the response was so overwhelmingly positive, it has increased to 12 – about 40 per cent of its total content.

“We are a small player in a rich market so when we launched our subscription model the difference had to be clear,” said Digital Editor Svein-Erik Hole. “We want to give employees in tech companies unique insights into new technology and market opportunities and help you do a better job. By promising this and living up to it we made our subscribers consider this a company expense and a lot of them give the bill to their employer.”

Coming up with clever subscriber benefits also boosted TU Media, according to CEO and Editor in Chief Jan Moberg. “We felt our subscribers should be able share the articles with their friends and colleagues,” he said. “We thought – hey, these people are paying for content, they should be able to pass it on and feel valuable and be part of the subscription.”

Die Zeit, meanwhile, set itself a mission to “make subscriptions great again” by developing a membership programme that combines the benefits of being a subscriber, like free content, with the sense of being part of a community that comes with being a supporter of a publication. It also acts as an affective tool to increase conversions within the free subscription trail period and reduce churn rates.

After consulting with groups of readers, Die Zeit discovered people liked its unique journalistic voice, its wide perspective and the inspiration they find in the publication. They then started staging events, using their journalists as speakers and travelling to towns that had 20,000 subscribers.

“We took Die Zeit’s journalistic heart and tried to make it more like an experience,” explained Wencke Tzanakakis, the head of the programme. “Friendship is about meeting up and talking and that’s what we did – face-to-face contact that made subscribers feel they made stories possible and are part of a cultural, interesting, flourishing community of other Die Zeit readers.”

Members also have access to webinars, weekly podcasts, free audio books, bundled articles and partner benefits.

Riding out the Covid storm

Like all publishers, TU Media and Die Zeit were hit hard by Covid-19, but have weathered the storm well. TU Media has had around 20 per cent more subscribers since the outbreak. Some articles – like stories about being laid off – that would normally be behind a paywall, was made available to everyone.

“(With Covid stories) we don’t want to charge people, we want to help them and build their loyalty,” said Hole.

During the Covid crisis, Die Zeit launched weekly online chats featuring journalists talking about stories they were covering, as well as starting a wide range of pop-up newsletters, including one specialising in kids’ activities during lockdown.

“We tried to be there for our readers and give the subscribers an in-depth look into topics, even more than the newspaper does,” said Tzanakakis. “We are now talking to subscribers to see if we should start switching to a hybrid event approach where we go back to theatres and invite a small crowd.”

Headlines are more important than ever. We need to show from the headline that this is a story you can learn from.

Svein-Erik Hole, TU Media

The importance of the written word

TU Media explained how, in order to identify patterns and see what works with their subscription model, they regularly perform manual analysis of editorial content in addition to studying cold data.

“One thing the data doesn’t tell us is how the editorial touch is influencing the performance of subscriptions,” said Hole. “For this we look through every article published and try to find the patterns. Headlines are more important than ever. We need to show from the headline that this is a story you can learn from. We also look at the angles that work and change the editorial profile to feed the needs of the audience.”

At Die Zeit, being close to the editorial team is also crucial. “The heart of our business is journalism,” said Tzanakakis. “Without journalists we couldn’t be in touch with our subscribers because they are there for our journalistic core. As a team we work in an editorial way – we found our programme in the same way as the editors do their newspapers.”

Good habits are hard to beat

For both publishers, an important part of their successful subscription model and membership programme is the ability to create habits. “We need to create habits from day one because frequent visits give low churn,” said Hole. “We distribute a newsletter to 90,000 followers each day and 20,000 use this as an entry channel to our websites. The content that results in the most clicks is a Norwegian cartoon about work life. Even though our mission is to be important editorially we must learn from those habits and use them. The cartoon makes people visit every day and then we can present them with other, more important stuff.”

According to Die Zeit’s Lennart Schneider, the importance of creating a habit is illustrated in the fact that there’s been low a churn rate post-Covid. “In the first few weeks it’s really important to create a habit with a new product and corona was a time when people came to the website on a daily basis,” he said. “They wanted to check the news and that was an intense experience they had with the brand. It’s something that’s made them stick with us.”

Growing pains

Both publishers gave an honest assessment on mistakes they’ve made in drawing up their subscription model and membership programme. According to Schneider, Friends of Die Zeit tried to run before it could walk. “We tried to start too big and learnt on the way,” he explained. “We changed a lot of the programme. My advice is to try out a few things first and then become big.”

Conversely, TU Media believe they started “too weak and too cheap” and should have put 25 per cent of content behind a paywall from day one, not only two articles a day. According to Moberg the company also recruited editorial staff too quickly. “We did that because we were promised the Zero VAT regime so it was basically part of promises that weren’t kept,” he said.

Lessons learnt, the next big step for TU Media is to invest in new technology. “Everything we have done so far is on home-built technology and we are now investing in Piano as a CRM system,” Hole said. “We need to be better at predictive analysis and more personalised content. We started from scratch with no dedicated people or history and now we are starting to get more professional.”

Pierre de Villiers

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