Before I visited Zeit Online last week, I had a clear goal of what I wanted to learn: What kind of paid content strategy will the company implement in the future? More and more media companies launch solutions for paid content, and I was sure Zeit Online would do something different.

Reader e-mails open a line of communication into the funnel system.
Reader e-mails open a line of communication into the funnel system.

Of course, there are already several kinds of paid content models in the market. Here are three:

  1. The metered model: This means a limited number of pageviews is free per day or month, and each additional view must be paid.
  2. The freemium model: In general, all stories are free, but some exclusive or special stories in the offering have a price tag.
  3. The subscription model: The Web site is totally closed, but you can get access to the content with a daily, weekly, or monthly payment.

The reason I considered that there might be another approach to paid content is the fact that the editor-in-chief at Zeit Online is Jochen Wegner, a well-known fighter for the freedom of the Internet.

His understanding about what online journalism is all about links to Jeff Jarvis’ mantra that your business model shouldn’t depend on forcing your customers to pay for content as they did in the offline world. New and creative subscription models must focus on the users’ needs and willingness to pay.

Zeit Online in Berlin is the Internet portal of the weekly quality newspaper Die Zeit, based in Hamburg.

Look at this strange situation: Both units work separately from each other and in different cities. They even publish different stories: Every Thursday, the print edition gives an overview about what has happened the in days before and defines the upcoming agenda by its impact on political debates. The Web site publishes its stories 24/7 and becomes the centre of developing stories and discussions.

What both units have in common is the brand and their sense for quality journalism. The difference is you can get the weekly newspaper by subscription or at the newsstand. The online portal is completely free. What the company will do is still a big secret, but you can read between the lines.

In February 2016, Managing Director Rainer Esser announced that a paywall at Zeit Online should be a signal to the readers that quality journalism has a value and cannot be financed just by advertising anymore.

In August 2016, Chief Editor Wegner told the magazine Horizont that he doesn’t see any success in charging people for every single story they read, but in building a relationship with the readers who stick closely to the brand of Die Zeit and Zeit Online.

Building a relationship doesn’t mean you turn readers immediately into customers. What is even more worthy is the chance to get into conversation with your readers.

In the online world, such a relationship starts always with a valid e-mail address. Some people will ask why capturing e-mail addresses should replace capturing money directly. The answer is both quite simple and risky: The e-mail address could make even more money.

Most of the Internet start-ups around the globe start by building a funnel system. That means they collect contact information in the form of an e-mail address, for example.

Through an automatically driven newsletter system (i.e. offered by e-mail providers like GetReponse), your registered readers get offerings they’ll probably be interested in. Jobs, books, seminars, events — there are many possibilities and opportunities to deepen your relationship and get money a little bit later.

And the readers will appreciate these offerings if these offerings are close to the brand and its core value. If they aren’t, the readers will unsubscribe — but you as a media company haven’t lost anything. Look at the other paid content models: It’s a deal — money for content — but actually no relationship in any case.

Is collecting e-mail addresses sexy? Not at all. Is it risky? Yes, it is. But there’s no better chance to talk to your readers with this level of investment. I try that on my little private Web sites like Viply.de and Mediapreneure.de; I can afford it, and it works perfectly.

The newspaper Tagesspiegel in Berlin is a role model for this. Lorenz Maroldt offers a daily newsletter called Checkpoint every morning to inform his readers about what is going on in the capital of Germany.

His newsletter is a personal briefing and gains more than 100,000 subscribers, which reflects the same altitude as the newspaper itself. Now they do the next step. Tagesspiegel creates newsletters for each of the 12 boroughs; each has the size of a small German city.

You need creativity to confirm the trust of your readers so they start a good relationship with you. You shouldn’t sell them anything they don’t need or want, but make them feel comfortable with you and your offerings. And this is the business you already do as a publisher.

Learn from Fany Péchiodat’s funnel system: The French girl gained nearly two million e-mail addresses by writing one story a day before she created a business model based on 80,000 paying subscribers.

Let’s see what Zeit Online will do. It isn’t decided yet.