How can media companies engage their audiences? How can they convert them from fly-by users to paying subscribers? And what is the best way to measure engagement?

These are just some of the questions INMA Media Ideas Day speakers tried to answer. In quick seven-minute Brainsnack sessions, experts from Germany, Belgium, France, and Sweden shared their ideas, tips, tricks, and do’s and don’ts about audience engagement.

Panelists discuss audience engagement: Horst Seidenfaden, chief editor of HNA; Kris Vanmarsenille, chief editor of Gazet van Antwerpen; Maxime Mone, co-founder of Poool.fr; and Peter Henebäck, co-founder and CEO of Collabrik.
Panelists discuss audience engagement: Horst Seidenfaden, chief editor of HNA; Kris Vanmarsenille, chief editor of Gazet van Antwerpen; Maxime Mone, co-founder of Poool.fr; and Peter Henebäck, co-founder and CEO of Collabrik.

Horst Seidenfaden, chief editor of HNA (Verlag Dierichs) explained how a simple exercise can have a huge impact on a news organisation.

The idea of HNA was to create a new edition of an e-paper for Sundays. Soon after, the company came to understood the idea was not only not new, but also not good — mostly because such a project would require significant staff, with no likelihood of a quick return.

So the idea evolved from a Sunday e-paper to a weekend magazine. HNA began its offer with hard news. But the users complained. HNA’s later survey proved that important or very important news for users were regional news (96%) and leisure, health, music, and nutrition with a regional filter.

Key learnings about the project were:

  • Expensive to produce.
  • Very time-consuming.
  • Digital has no weekdays.
  • No extra market, no real new product.
  • No new user groups.
  • Print has its own readership.
  • Magazines must differentiate with special interest content for a special target group.
  • New platforms have a larger reach not because of hard news but because of a specially curated mix of content.

Projekt Sieben started in July 2017 with 50 subscribers paying €2.90 a month (that’s about as much as the price of one coffee). The plan for a year was to reach 5,000 subscribers. Now, in late September, HNA is very far from its goal — so far only 130 subscribers have signed up for the project.

Seidenfaden said this kind of action is not a solution for generating new revenues. But it was helpful in learning about business, products, processes, and what people want. The project will probably exist until the end of next year when the publisher will evaluate it.

“Even though the project was far from a success, it proved that a simple exercise in setting up a new local, digital magazine can teach us much more about ourselves, our company culture, our readers, and the products they really want. Yes, we did create the local magazine in the end. But the exercise changed much more the way we go about our daily business than we could have imagined; for the better.” 

A totally different approach in building users’ engagement was shown by Kris Vanmarsenille, chief editor of Gazet van Antwerpen. The Belgian news title decided to engage its audience by setting up a local newspaper café.

The circulation of Gazet van Antwerpen is almost 87,000, yet the combined number of readers in both print and digital adds up to 420,000. Its market share in the province of Antwerpen is 36%.

Gazet van Antwerpen is well-known for its creative editorials. It prepared an annex series (six series of 20 pages each) about 125 years of the City of Antwerp for the newspaper’s 125th birthday. It also printed a special edition of the newspaper using its oldest layout but with today’s news.

The publisher wanted to learn more about the users and asked them directly about their expectations. Local audience members said they wanted their news source to:

  • Be the fastest, most detailed, and best local news.
  • Have the best quality journalism.
  • Be the best city guide.
  • Bring people together and build bridges between communities in Antwerp.

Even though the first expectations were predictable, the last was the reason the unique Kaffee van Antwerpen was created. From the beginning, the café was intended to be a meeting place for everybody (multi-cultural and for all ages). Its motto was: “Meet the future of Antwerp.”

The café appeared to be a great success. It featured concerts with young artists, a debate with the mayor, food trucks, beer tastings, and TED-x presentations. Everything was available for the subscribers.

To please the guests, they were even invited to brew their own beer; subscribers were invited to tastings, and, with their comments, a new beer was created. Every subscriber received a bottle of his own beer.

The café engaged 800 readers in just one month (two-thirds of the guests were subscribers). Stories about it generated 250,000 pageviews and a reach of 3,500,000.

Maxime Mone, co-founder of Poool.fr (France), spoke about engaging users in a way that would allow publishers to turn them into paying subscribers. Mone noticed that, throughout the past 15 years, the market has shifted from print advertising to digital advertising to digital subscriptions. Digital publishing is in the hand of the readers, not advertisers.

The problems noticed by Poool that could be found in many media houses:

  • Less than 1% pay to read the online news.
  • 60% directly leave Web sites with paid content.
  • 50% don’t even see the paywall because it’s too low on the page.

Poool takes a different approach. Instead of trying to get readers to pay for news, it tries to engage them step by step from fly-by users to occasional users to regular ones, and then into fans. And, finally, into subscribers.

According to Mone, publishers need to create custom relationships with their readers by trying new ways of creating custom relationships with different types of readers. What he suggests is a data-driven paywall that empowers publishers to easily personalise a reader’s journey and increase average revenue per user. By using data, they can create segments of users and differentiate the strategies toward those groups.

Poool worked on adblocking, fly-bys, and occasional readers. It created a specific journey for each group; for example, fly-bys could read the first article for free while the rest of the content was paid for, and adblock readers couldn’t read any articles at all. Poool tested many options with the goal to increase user engagement.

Peter Henebäck, co-founder and CEO of Collabrik, offered a disruptive take on story-centric news planning. Collabrik has a disruptive tool for multi-platform news planning and cross-platform analytics that improves those kinds of efficiencies.

Henebäck noticed media moved from single-platform to multi-platform, the time of working in media changed from fixed into 24/7, and that we switched from being platform-centric to story-centric. The problem now is not which platform to begin with; now it is story production first, platform second. 

Collabrik focuses on cross-platform collaboration. The tool offers a weekly view with topics for each day and the platform choice. It began as a tool for assignments and morphed into a tool for collaboration needed to produce the content — offering a new kind of analytics (i.e. not only what readers clicked on after watching the video but also what the engagement was across all platforms on #budget and #tax this month).