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Culture of connection was key to the subscription comeback at Mediahuis

By Shelley Seale

INMA

Austin, Texas, USA

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Mediahuis experienced a rapid and acute downturn of its businesses in the turbulent media industry. The Belgian organisation had to adapt, pivot, and make smart use of data and new technology in response.

Ultimately, Mediahuis got on the right track and is now more successful than ever — but it wasn’t those solutions that were at the core of the company’s transformation. Rather, the defining factor was the connection between people inside and outside the organisation.

Two executives from Mediahuis Partners had to fundamentally adapt their publishing companies to achieve this and along the way wrote two books about the process. On Wednesday, Xavier van Leeuwe, director of consumers at Mediahuis, and Matthijs van de Peppel, chief marketing officer at NRC Media presented a Webinar for INMA members to share their journey — in which they got the culture right, lifted employees to a higher level, and built lasting customer relationships.

Xavier Van Leeuwe and Matthijs van de Peppel presented an INMA Webinar based on their experiences and books.
Xavier Van Leeuwe and Matthijs van de Peppel presented an INMA Webinar based on their experiences and books.

The decline

Van Leeuwe took INMA members back to January 2013, when Mediahuis Nederland began seeing a huge decline in subscriptions amongst its three magazines, five regional newspapers, and one national newspaper.

“It just was going down terribly,” he said. In the years between January 2013 and January 2017, more than 120,000 subscriptions were lost.

That year, smart marketing tactics were put into place to stop the decline and begin reversing it. These tactics are outlined in Van Leeuwe’s and van de Peppel’s first book, How to Succeed in the Relationship Economy.

“We started to learn about customer journeys and empathise with the customers — and it worked,” van Leeuwe said. “The decline was not so bad anymore. But the real breakthrough was later.”

That breakthrough, in 2019, went far beyond tactics. Mediahuis created a deeper connection with its purpose, its employees, and its customers.

The breakthrough for growth at Mediahuis went beyond tactics to deep human connection.
The breakthrough for growth at Mediahuis went beyond tactics to deep human connection.

“We understand what we stand for and why we do what we do,” Van Leeuwe said.

The results were astounding. From fewer than 600,000 subscriptions in January 2019, Mediahuis increased its subscriber base to more than 650,000 by September 2020 — and expects that trajectory to continue rising.

A culture of connection

Van Leeuwe said it was the culture of connection the organisation created that was responsible for this spectacular growth in subscriptions.

Before 2019, in spite of weekly meetings, the team members and departments worked in silos. Then they began working together, creating bridge roles for people to work cross-departmentally.

“In spite of that, we were still not really connected,” Van Leeuwe reported. “The question was really: How could we get the connection going? How could we create this sense of urgency?”

Mediahuis needed to create a sense of urgency for people to change the culture.
Mediahuis needed to create a sense of urgency for people to change the culture.

The company looked at its financials and the margins it was making from reader subscriptions. They realised the current “business as usual” would not pay for its journalism by 2021 or 2022.

“The idea was to get the wake-up call — we have to fundamentally change something. Otherwise we’re just going to have a problem. The big decline is gone, but we don’t have the turnaround.”

The answer was to create a company-wide goal — a big, hairy, audacious goal (BHAG). The team knew digital was where the growth would be had and asked what kind of growth in online sales were needed to fill that €18 million gap between cost and revenue.

“We made a calculation, and it was quite simple,” Van Leeuwe said. “We had to do a factor four. We had to go from 400 to 1,600 weekly starts in the online shop.”

Mediahuis had an audacious goal: to increase its weekly digital starts by fourfold.
Mediahuis had an audacious goal: to increase its weekly digital starts by fourfold.

The goal was so ambitious that many questioned whether it was even possible, he said: “The funny thing is, we are making that most weeks already. How did we do it?”

Tracks in digital acceleration

The company looked at different departments and identified various tracks within them.

“Instead of building bridges, we put everybody together, like a Swiss army knife,” Van Leeuwe explained. “So every team, there’s somebody from each department, and they all have their own specialty or focus.”

Mediahuis created inter-departmental teams with various tracks within each team.
Mediahuis created inter-departmental teams with various tracks within each team.

“Now, this isn’t very revolutionary, but it did bring in a lot of focus. And it was the first time that at the same table people from acquisitions and from editorial could decide with each other, with the people in advertising, what we should do in subscription acquisition. They started to understand each other.”

The move brought fantastic results, Van Leeuwe said. People made a really fundamental connection with each other on the teams. They also made sure that everything the teams did had a connection to the boardroom.

“Exciting things were happening, but nobody in the boardroom really had any idea what was going on. They were not part of the innovation.”

This culture of connection was serving a communal, shared purpose.

Clear goals let people flourish — hierarchy doesn’t

NRC Media created the same kind of culture and connections, but took it a step further, Matthijs van de Peppel said: They removed a lot of the hierarchy.

“There were targets all over the place,” he said of the previous hierarchal model. “And they were not always aligned. All these layers of hierarchy and managers, it didn’t work in the most effective ways.”

Over the course of a year, NRC went through an agile transition to create end-to-end teams with clear goals, a product owner and team coach, but without the hierarchy. These teams are blended, with editorial, marketing, sales, and data analytics staff on the same team.

The teams are not managed by a manager, but rather by a goal such as retention or acquisition. Instead of a manager, there is more of a facilitator to help with any problems or needed support. The team makes their own decisions on how to achieve their goals.

“Those are very clear goals. They define them themselves,” van de Peppel said. “The big goal is the same, but they are much more aligned. It works much better than before.”

Only great people

One effect of such a structure is that many team members were lost. The focus became to only have great people on the team. Van de Peppel said it was modeled after Steve Jobs, who said A-players hire A-players, whereas B-players hire C-players.

“This is perhaps the most important learning that we discovered in the last years,” he said. “We always tell each other, we don’t need good people, we only need great people. Really, the best of the best.”

Sometimes this meant letting good people go to get great people in. The company makes no concessions when hiring new people, nor during annual reviews, he said. Team members must:

  • Be both result-oriented and people-oriented.
  • Be eager to learn, self-starters who give energy.
  • Demonstrate unanimity in decision-making.

A structured hiring process prevents similarity attraction. During performance reviews, they ask if that person would be hired again.

“We are not looking for the quickest solution. We are looking for the best solution,” van de Peppel said. “It’s really the only way to improve the company and the results.”

Results: spectacular growth

By structuring the team in this way, NRC Media saw incredible results, Van de Peppel said. In two years, the online channel saw a growth of seven times.

“I think these figures show that it’s possible,” he said. “I think you can reach [those goals] when you work together.”

Though NRC is a media organisation, all of this has the team asking itself: Are we really an e-commerce company in the making?

“We see ourselves as an editorial company, as a journalism company. We will probably always stay a journalism company. But I think that our marketing approach is an e-commerce approach, and will continue to be an e-commerce approach in the future.”

This realisation means media publishers moving forward in the digital transformation should look more to e-commerce companies, rather than the publishing industry, for future direction and to learn from.

The Human Touch was the big leap that moved Mediahuis companies to tremendous growth.
The Human Touch was the big leap that moved Mediahuis companies to tremendous growth.

All of this led to van de Peppel and Van Leeuwe co-writing a new book, The Human Touch: Improving Resilience and Agility in Organizations Step-by-Step.

“Today we have more subscribers than ever in the history of NRC,” van de Peppel said. “It was a great milestone to reach, and we achieved it as a company as a whole, not the advertising department or the editorial department. It’s an achievement of all of us, and I also think that’s the message in the book. You can reach the sky if you work together.”

Banner photo courtesy of Lisa Fotios from Pexels.

About Shelley Seale

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