Digital subscription, data lessons from Nordic news publishers

By Shelley Seale


Austin, Texas, United States


The Norwegian and Swedish media markets are reportedly the most advanced in the world in embracing data and digital subscriptions. Yet what is the secret behind their success?

INMA led a study tour of Oslo and Stockholm media companies in March 2019 and saw the role of data and logins, the path to personalisation, the metrics that matter, the role of newsrooms in paid content, the new “smart engagement,” and the triangulation of print, e-paper, and digital.

Earl J. Wilkinson, executive director and CEO of INMA, presented the Webinar, taking an in-depth look at what Nordic publishers are doing to tilt their business and journalism cultures toward reader revenue. Wilkinson shared what INMA witnessed on the tour, along with his favourite ideas and takeaways.  

Recap of the INMA Study Tour held in Oslo and Stockholm in March 2019.
Recap of the INMA Study Tour held in Oslo and Stockholm in March 2019.

“The purpose of this study tour was to focus very narrowly on two of the Nordic countries [Norway and Sweden] and their ecosystems, particularly with media subscriptions,” Wilkinson said, noting that even though the eight media companies visited were rivals, everyone was very open and sharing with their practices.

Nordic digital subscriptions have skyrocketed in the past 18 months, going up by 49% and acquiring more than 390,000 new digital subscribers. “The quality newspapers are dramatically outperforming the populars,” Wilkinson said. “The Norwegians are growing pretty dramatically.”

This slide shows the dramatic growth in digital subscriptions amongst Nordic media publishers.
This slide shows the dramatic growth in digital subscriptions amongst Nordic media publishers.

The companies from the study tour in Norway — Amedia, Verdens Gang (VG), Aftenposten, Dagbladet, and Dagens Næringsliv — showed a 68% growth. The Swedish companies — Aftonbladet, Dagens Nyheter, MittMedia, Svenska Dagbladet, and Expressen — grew by 34%.

Data, logins, and the road to personalisation

“I’m beginning to see internationally, in real mission statements, that the flow of data is leading to a login culture, which is leading to personalisation,” Wilkinson said. “Companies aspire to basically be highly personalised by 2021, by 2022. Logins are just becoming mandatory. And it’s not just for subscribers — it’s for all users.”

Logins are increasingly being required for all users, not just for subscribers, in a road to personalisation.
Logins are increasingly being required for all users, not just for subscribers, in a road to personalisation.

Schibsted implemented a global single sign-on for all its properties in 2013. The company wants people to log in so it can track them. Aftenposten created a predictive modeling technique based on logins from non-subscribers. VG is developing a “user fingerprint,” while Svenska Dagbladet has a project in the works that will enhance logged-in reading.

As MittMedia stated, it’s not the anonymous users that are profitable — it’s relationships.

Aftenposten is betting big not just on Big Data but also on Artificial Intelligence, Wilkinson said. “Also acting on real-time data, they’ve created an anti-churn programme that has reduced churn by 29%,” he shared. For example, the company uses chatbots to relieve customer call centers. Of the 107,000 conversations so far, 44% of customers opted for a human handover.

“All roads are leading to some level of personalisation,” Wilkinson said:

  • Topic modeling beyond human tagging.
  • VG perused 310,000 articles from the past 25 years, identifying 250 topics.
  • VG is also in the process of developing a user fingerprint.
  • Amedia Plus readership skyrocketed after the company focused on article genres.

The metrics that matter (and those that don’t)

A consistent metric of success is the frequency of visits. “Dagens Nyheter takes a different view,” Wilkinson said. “They understand frequency, but their North Star metric is total time spent — and they’re pretty obsessed with it. I think it’s pretty interesting that they’ve created a heat map for their home page showing that.”

What is getting measured (and rewarded):

  • Aftonbladet measures daily reach, pageviews, readership of plus subscribers, and video streams.
  • MittMedia’s strategic KPIs include the number of Plus subscribers, ARPU for Plus subscribers, and daily subscriber activations.
  • A downgrade of pageviews has been seen across the board: They are down 5% at MittMedia, where they are no longer a KPI.

“I’ve heard consistently that pageviews are dropping in importance,” Wilkinson said. “They don’t want their newsroom chasing pageviews. Everyone seemed to have a kind of evolution.”

The role of newsrooms in paid content

The newsroom must own the subscription process.

Wilkinson said that before the study tour, he had a bias that the differentiator between what’s happening in the Nordic countries and the rest of the world resided around changing the newsroom culture to one that embraces data — and therefore understands the new KPIs and digital subscriptions.

“I will back off that slightly,” he revealed in the Webinar. “I found that while they are very advanced in many ways with their newsrooms, frankly it is a consistent cultural struggle to keep people focused. There are still companies out there internationally where newsrooms want nothing to do with data or digital subscriptions.”

He found on the study tour that Aftenposten and Dagens Nyheter are the furthest along in this, with strong editors and CEOs. “They had a vision and they really implemented it and drove it through their company,” Wilkinson said. “But they don’t have it on autopilot. Even in the Nordic countries, there is no autopilot to keep newsrooms culturally focused.”

Amedia still has continual coaching among its 72 properties, while MittMedia experienced reluctant newsrooms and pushback. NTM is passionately trying to get its newsrooms on board. “It’s not a slam dunk.”

Expressen just pulled the trigger in December and has gotten off to a strong start, claiming to be the most data-driven newsroom in the Nordics. Expressen really thought that through and knew it couldn’t get to digital subscriptions until it got its newsroom really on board with the data. “They shattered the iceberg,” Wilkinson said. “It’s really got to start at the top. I’ve never known it to be a bottom-up process, and Expressen just reinforced that for me.”

Just charge readers — they may be waiting for it

MittMedia presents an interesting case study. It identified 650 ex-subscribers and reached out to them to find out why they weren’t subscribing. The outreach found 69% of them were loyal customers, but were paying nothing. Why? Because MittMedia hadn’t asked them to.

This spurred the publisher to put all its content behind the paywall, forcing these engaged readers to subscribe. This created enhanced value for those subscribers and made products easier to use by reducing friction.

The new “smart engagement”

Wilkinson said he has been taught to believe that in the digital age, the home or front page is secondary. “That’s not what I heard” on the study tour, he said. “They said, ‘We want them coming in the front door.’ They’re building their algorithms more and more to build personalised front pages.”

In the Nordic countries, the home or front page is central, supporting the journalistic mission and business goals. It takes into account user frequency and preferences to create more relevant profiles of subscribers and build editorially guided algorithms.

Aftenposten, Wilkinson said, wants to show its visitors:

  • The width of its content profile.
  • What others are reading.
  • Premium content that converts new subscribers and retains current ones.
  • Articles not already read by the user.

The results? Aftenposten has seen 10%-15% uplift from articles on the front page versus manually editing. The subscription conversion is about the same, but more users are exposed to a higher number of their best stories.

The rise of live-streamed events

“We heard a lot about the rise of streamed events, particularly sporting events,” Wilkinson said. “I think that the Nordic publishers have an angle that a lot of other publishers don’t have.”

Live streaming of events, especially sports, is having incredible results for Nordic publishers.
Live streaming of events, especially sports, is having incredible results for Nordic publishers.

At VG, for example, video (mainly documentaries) is responsible for triggering 12,000 subscriptions for VG Plus, 20% of whom are new subscribers.

Amedia reported 10% of its digital subscriptions are related to live sports. “Their finding is that this is just as sticky as news,” Wilkinson said.

He shared a specific example of this impact from Amedia, a football match held on August 12, 2018, in Fredrikstad. In addition to the 10,413 people at the game in the arena, another 12,197 people watched the live stream (they had to be a subscriber to do so). In a town of only 80,000 people, that equated to a total of 28% of the population.

The role of podcasts in engagement

“An overwhelming number of publishers told us that they are using podcasts as kind of a top-of-the-funnel lead generator, an engagement tool for non-subscribers that will lead to something else,” Wilkinson said.

Podcasts are being used in Nordic countries with some surprising results.
Podcasts are being used in Nordic countries with some surprising results.

Aftenposten produces a daily podcast that explains one topic and is 15 to 20 minutes long. “It’s primarily attracting 18-30 year olds, and get this: 80% of them are listening every day, and 80% listen from beginning to end. That’s got my head twisting and spinning.”

Podcasts are also attracting young adults at Dagens Næringsliv.

The triangulation of print, e-paper, and digital

Where does print versus e-paper versus digital reside? Two examples of pricing models:

  • MittMedia charges €37 for its print newspaper subscription, €16 for the e-paper, and €10 for digital.
  • Svenska Dagbladet charges €42 for its print newspaper subscription, €18 for the e-paper, and €10 for digital.

“MittMedia shared with us that they very much strategically believe in moving their print subscribers to their e-paper because it’s a higher margin,” Wilkinson added.

The enduring vitality of e-papers was a surprising find, and this is mostly due to their value for retaining subscribers in the 60+ age range and creating a digital bridge for older print readers. At Dagens Nyheter, 100,000 out of its 330,000 subscribers read the e-paper every week.

Cool ideas and outliers

  • At MittMedia, content is free for the first hour after it is published. This “gamefies” the user experience for non-subscribers and drives their frequency. “If they visit often enough, they’re just going to give in and subscribe. And they’ve had some success with this,” Wilkinson said.
  • Dagbladet Pluss pulls its content from three sources: sister publication Aller Media print magazine content, original content from its 10 journalists, and stories from the free version.
  • The favourite subscription acquisition tactic of Dagens Nyheter is to unlock the site during an election as a public service and ask users for their e-mail addresses in exchange for free access. The results were that 70,000 people sign up for that, and the company converted 30% of those into subscribers.

“Login culture, single sign-on culture, data culture is leading to this personalised world, probably in the next two to three years, where this is going to be more and more common,” Wilkinson said. “Newsrooms have to own the subscription process.”

The key takeaways from the INMA Study Tour in Norway and Sweden.
The key takeaways from the INMA Study Tour in Norway and Sweden.


Where does all of this lead? And just as importantly, why does it all matter?

  • A reader-dominated business model replacement to sustain and grow scalable journalism.
  • A re-connection of newsrooms with the people they tell stories for.
  • A more passionate community rallying around your brand, which can lead to new opportunities and reinvention of advertising.


INMA: To what extent do they want to personalise — up to each individual or interest group?

Wilkinson: I think if you talk to Schibsted they’re going to say up to each individual. One-to-one personalisation. We’re just not there yet.

INMA: Is there any insight on the subscription of news on a global nature versus hyper-local? And what about packaging non-news?

Wilkinson: That was actually one of my negative surprises on this study tour, talking about packaging non-news. I didn’t hear a lot on this tour about memberships and clubs and value-added services. It would come up, but it was more like, ‘Well of course we do that.’ Maybe we didn’t talk enough about that, the non-news aspects of the relationships. As far as global versus local, I don’t even think of it that way. For the most part, subscriptions are driven by the uniqueness and differentiating character of your brand and your content.

INMA: Any thoughts about how to grow membership?

Wilkinson: I think we’re going to focus on that with our Readers First initiative in the next year or so. I think one of the challenges in the U.S. marketplace is because the newspapers are kind of “one size fits all,” it’s a big disconnect. My big advice is just to make sure your membership benefits make sense with the audience you’re trying to reach.

About Shelley Seale

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