Since we introduced a model for a paid Website, the focus of marketing is not so much on reach but on conversion, activation, and engagement. Our job as digital marketers is to bring as many people as possible to the paywall and convert them.

But that’s not enough.

Once readers take the step of paying for our content, we need to activate them as well. Many new members get a subscription because of a promotion (the iPad that goes with the subscription is quite often more important than the newspaper). Subscribers not only need to have a subscription, they must also use the subscription.

The leaked New York Times memo put it this way: “We are putting less effort into reaching reader’s digital doorsteps than we ever did reaching their physical doorsteps.” At De Standaard, we are looking for ways to market and re-market the content to activate the digital reader as much as possible.

That’s what we did with Tot aan de Ijzer.

This is the first spread of Tot aan de Ijzer, which was debuted in the newspaper on July 28, 2014. That date was exactly 100 years after Austria declared war on Serbia, setting off World War I. This was the start of a series of articles in De Standaard that lasted for more than three months, discussing the German invasion of Belgium.

Tot aan de Ijzer – “to the river de Ijzer” — is a detailed historic reconstruction of what happened when German soldiers invaded Belgium in August, took the major Belgian cities one by one, and were halted around Ypres.

The series reported on the invasion, military movements, and political impact. De Standaard also published testimonials of civilians, soldiers, priests, nurses, writers, and the like, shedding a light on how the war was survived by the population. Much attention was paid to photography, drawings, cartoons, and infographics — a classic piece of journalism.

We used to think our work was done after we put publish. Now we know it only starts after the publication.

  1. With the first publication, a promotional campaign drew the reader’s attention to the series. We communicate with in-newspaper ads, by mail, shared pieces on social media to give non-subscribers a taste. We bundled the series well, permitting the reader to easily find the articles.  

  2. Three months later, a second cycle begins. We re-bundled the content into an ebook and promoted it through another channel. dS Avond is an app with evening news published at 5 p.m. Readers had to download dSA each day and start saving points from the edition. At the end of the week, a full saving card entitled you to an ebook-version of Tot aan de Ijzer (this was the first activation).

  3. And at the end of the year, we recycled the ebook and offered it with the print edition as a Christmas gift (voucher with unique download code inserted in the newspaper).

By clicking on the box of the day, a coupon appears in the evening edition of dS (dS Avond). Every coupon counts for a downloaded issue of dS Avond. With the second activation, we offered the ebook with the newspaper and had extra newsstand sales of almost 3,000 copies during the weekend.

Moreover, these buyers had to register so we collected extra data from an interesting group of non-subscribers. In terms of digital activation, it was a great tool: subscribers activated their digital account to read, and digital readership increased.

As the content is the editors’ property, you don’t have any fee or royalty. So this is an extremely cheap way of marketing.

A second example of this type of promotion is a photobook called Altijd Ergens — a bundle of pictures of Michiel Hendryckx, a famous Belgian photographer who published his photos in dS Weekblad, our weekend supplement.

We also made an ebook of this album and promoted dS Avond by using the same mechanism of saving daily coupons.

This was also a big success, but more interesting were the diagrams of both promotions. When you compared the readers of Tot aan de Ijzer with those of Altijd Ergens, we saw that there was only a small percentage of common readers. The target group of downloaders was a different set of people each time. 

An observation you might like to consider: don’t use the same type of content to promote or activate your brand. Try to vary and appeal to different groups of people. If you can offer a reading incentive once in a while to everybody, your activation policy will be more successful.