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De Standaard finds success building its paywall with accessible doors

By Shelley Seale


Austin, Texas, United States

De Standaard in Belgium has been experimenting with various paywall subscriptions and has struck a good balance with a porous freemium model. In a live Webinar on Wednesday, Emmanuel Naert, brand manager, and Johan Mortelmans, digital manager, shared what De Standaard has learned over the past five months.

“We have a very strong place in the market in Flanders, with a lot of room for conversion,” Naert said. “We had a lot of conversations about doing a freemium or a metered model. We ended up with the freemium model; to keep some part of the Website open for the general public, with other articles paid for under a ‘plus’ label to indicate them.”

De Standaard puts out both a digital morning and evening issue, with a mix of free-to-the-public content, and plus content behind the paywall. “For the public, the plus articles are an important first touchpoint,” Naert said. “We are increasing the number of plus articles on the site continuously. At this moment, about 15-20% of the content is plus articles.”

De Standaard found success with a porous paywall model after trying a free trial model that didn't work well.
De Standaard found success with a porous paywall model after trying a free trial model that didn't work well.

Old trial proposal

De Standaard’s first venture into freemium strategy consisted of offering customers a seven-day trial period, during which readers could have access to all the plus articles and download the morning and evening digital editions. After the seven days, they would need to pay for the service.

They encountered several problems with this model:

  • A high number of bounces.
  • It required a full registration by users, who found that threshold was too high.
  • The touchpoints had the tone of a stop sign.
  • It was not an answer to the request of the visitor (which was to read content).
  • There was a lack of visibility for the best journalistic work, leading to frustration in the newsroom.

“A lot of people clicked on the articles, but few people actually went through the paywall to start their trial periods,” Mortelmans said. “People were not really charmed by the proposal and not attracted by the screen they saw. It did not have a lot of conversion.”

De Standaard's new freemium model has seen digital subscriptions increase quite a bit.
De Standaard's new freemium model has seen digital subscriptions increase quite a bit.

Objectives for a new model

Since De Standaard knew the first model wouldn’t work, it needed to build a new model that would meet certain objectives:

  • Obtain better sales results in absolute num­­bers.
  • Decrease high volume of bounces.
  • Create more visibility and attention to our journalism.
  • Engage the newsroom in converting readers.

De Standaard also needed porosity — various doors that would be available for readers to enter, enabling it to:

  • Put holes in the wall.
  • Give restricted access to paid content.
  • Not have a meter on the entire site.
  • Permit the trial of journalism that takes the most effort to produce.

De Standaard used a Messagent tool called target. This works on the Internet, on mobile sites and desktop; it doesn’t work on apps, however. The new model was launched July 2017.

“We wanted to present this model as a test; it’s not really final, but it gives us the opportunity to see if another kind of model would work for us,” Mortelmans said.

With the porous model, readers get five plus articles per month for free. The first article requires a light registration for access (e-mail address and password), and the second article requires a full registration.

What happens when readers click on the sixth piece of premium content? They enter a second step, with an offer to access all the plus articles at a special price of one euro for the first month; then the subscriber can renew for six months at a 44% discount off the regular price. After that period, the subscription goes to full price.

“It’s really small steps, to engage them to become a subscriber paying full price,” Naert said.


De Standaard reviewed the results of this new porous model in December, six months later. There was an increase in unique readers and subscribers. After four months, it had more than 400,000 new porous readers, with around 2,000 new readers per day.

De Standaard also saw a higher attention time spent on the plus content. Before, there was an average of 1,000-1,500 hours per day spent on the plus content; under the new model, that jumped to 1,500-2,500 hours per day.

Taking a look at the results of De Standaard's paywall model for plus content.
Taking a look at the results of De Standaard's paywall model for plus content.

De Standaard was really happy with results, such as when a plus article would be the number one article of a day, Naert said: “This type of article is creating bigger audiences.”

De Standaard found 37% of the porous subscribers used all their reading rights to read all five plus articles they had access to. “This is pleasing because it’s these people that we are trying to convert to paid subscribers,” Naert said. “We also saw a decrease in our bounce rate.”

This is not a waterproof system, Mortelmans noted: “For instance, we don’t really know if reading more plus articles results in more sales. There are days or weeks where we have a big number of people who max out their available articles, but where we had weak sales — and vice versa. We are not seeing a pattern with this yet.”

Impact on the newsroom

How has this content model affected De Standaard’s editorial department?

  • Significant higher daily disclosure of newspaper content.
  • Daily digital-first production.
  • Long features belong behind the paywall.
  • Social sharing of six to eight plus articles per day.
  • Integration of plus articles in newsletters.
  • Seeing the first plus article become the most read story of the day (November 18, 2017).

The next steps for De Standaard include:

  • Optimisation of the porous wall.
  • Full registration required for the first read article.
  • Integration of touchpoints.
  • Better use of conversion KPIs.
  • Develop personalisation.
  • Create new paying web-only proposition.


INMA: Did you find a correlation between big, breaking news stories and sales?

De Standaard: We don’t see that, though we do see an increase in attention time.

INMA: What about asking for their home address — why are you asking for this with a digital subscription?

De Standaard: We have a CRM which is based on physical address, so we are not really ready to turn it around and find out what email addresses are really worth. There may be several readers in the same household with different e-mails (also the fake e-mail).

INMA: What type of content on plus articles is most consumed and converted?

De Standaard: We are still researching this; at this moment we don’t see a very clear pattern. We do see that if the article is longer, conversion is better. Articles on politics and human interest are generally converting well, but we are still researching this.

INMA: What kind of data do you feed back into the newsroom?

De Standaard: At this point we don’t share data on conversion because we are still researching it and are not quite sure of the figures at this moment.

INMA: Are you producing any digital-only content, and any for plus section?

De Standaard: Yes — in the evening publication, for example, we are publishing some digital-only plus content. We are also doing this with a bundle at 5 p.m. that is delivered in the mobile app that will include some of the stories from the morning edition. Even some content that is not digital-only, it’s certainly digital-first. We go by relevance first, more than digital first.

INMA: What are you doing to entice people to return to your Web site more often?

De Standaard: We are happy with the 37% of people now reading the maximum amount of articles. Of course we want this to be 100%. That’s where our touchpoints come in. One thing we could do is to organise segments of our porous readers, to know who they are from the first day they enter their trial period.

INMA: Did you experience better conversion from existing/previous users or brand new users?

De Standaard: The largest percentage of people taking a porous trial were previously registered users; perhaps around 80% were previously known to us. It was quite a small number of people who had nothing to do with us before.

About Shelley Seale

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