Though more than 16,000 kilometers apart, news executives in both Sydney and Copenhagen faced the same existential crisis in mid-2016. And they tackled it with two very different approaches and outcomes.

Senior officers from Fairfax Media in Australia and Politiken in Denmark traded the microphone Tuesday afternoon during INMA’s Media Subscriptions Summit in London to describe how their companies reacted to that year’s drastic drop in digital revenue. The common denominator in their responses was a focus on building up digital subscriptions through an emphasis on product value.

“For at least the last 18 months, there has been a growing certainty that subscriptions would be not where some of our future growth would come from, but where all of where our future growth would come from,” said Jess Ross, chief product officer at Fairfax Media. “From a product perspective, that has really meant a growing obsession with the understanding of the value of news.”

According to Astrid Jørgensen, Politiken leadership took a hard look at its value proposition in 2016.
According to Astrid Jørgensen, Politiken leadership took a hard look at its value proposition in 2016.

“I cannot emphasise enough,” said Astrid Jørgensen, head of sales and marketing at Politiken, “how big a difference and how important it is, that when you talk internally about value proposition, this is not your strategy. This is not your vision. This is not your mission. It’s all of those things — inside out. You have to force yourself: You have to figure out what kind of value do we add to our end users. So it’s about their needs. It’s not about yours/our needs as a media business.”

For the Danish publisher, this led to a sobering self-appraisal to identify exactly what it is that anyone anymore would value about a newspaper, and then to promulgate that new self-image across the entire enterprise.

“I think we’ve forgotten as an industry — just taking for granted the value we represent,” Jørgensen told the global audience assembled at Reuters’ headquarters in London. She encouraged them, like she encouraged Politiken staff, to develop what she termed a “brand asset valuator,” grading the enterprise on its band differentiation, esteem, relevance, and knowledge.

“This is very difficult,” she said. “And it is very difficult also to communicate in a publishing house where great journalism, the fight for democracy, the power-criticism, being a strong publishing house with strong traditions and having 134 years of history — having to say, ‘That’s fine.’ But if you’re going to ask someone on the street, in their home, at the coffee table somewhere, they will not give you the same interpretation of what your value represents.

“A value proposition on top is worth zip if you your editorial newsroom cannot resonate with it. It’s worth nothing if you acquire a lot of new customers and you tell them how fantastic your brand is and how much value they get, and when they kind of get the final product, they’re not satisfied because they cannot see themselves in it.

“And when they call your customer service centre, if they are met with an approach that does not match your value proposition, again, this will slip. So you need the entire organisation here. And you need it to ensure that you have clear ways of communicating with your users.”

With a strong value proposition, she said the news media company can then price its digital, as well as print, products heavily with a confident case that they are worth paying for: “You actually support the perception in users that it’s worth what they’re paying for it.”

At Fairfax, the approach has focussed on evolving pricing for the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age in Melbourne around a newly developed reader assistance technology called Shortlist.

At Fairfax Media, the publisher realised it needed to address customer motivation for consuming news, Jess Ross said.
At Fairfax Media, the publisher realised it needed to address customer motivation for consuming news, Jess Ross said.

The publisher realised its digital products weren’t really built for subscriptions. “They were meant to distribute information, but they weren’t being used to deliver or to talk exclusively about customer value,” Ross said.

“At Fairfax, we have identified a number of key motivations that lead to news-seeking behaviours. They range from things like mastery, to inspiration and escape, to belonging.

“But I think all of them lead to one key outcome and that key outcome really does constitute the value of news: That’s that feeling that you get with you read the paper, which is you feel up to date and you feel ready to face the world. You’ve kind of had your little taste of what the world has to share with you today. It’s about making you feel like you’re ready for anything.

“And I think that really we can see here a bit of the disconnect between the  propensity to pay for online and for print. Because, with online news, you are never done. You are never up to date. Online news is effectively infinite and it doesn’t make you feel confident about going off to face the world.”

Developed by an in-house start-up, Shortlist is a technology feature designed to deal with that problem, Ross said, “to put you in the driver’s seat of how much and what you consume, and to reduce what I call cognitive load. So it’s the hassle that you have to choose what to read. And it helps you feel more productive by always getting you to ‘done’ at the end of every session.”

Describing it as a sort of playlist for news, Ross said the feature has been made freely available, outside of the paywall, to deliver a distinctive news experience and give people a reason to get out of their Facebook feed.

“At the one end, we have about 60% of our target market that will pay for a high-utility news experience that helps them to find what they need with a minimum amount of investment of time and effort,” Ross said. “But at the other end of the scale, we have about 40% of our market that is prepared to pay even more for a news app that they want to spend time with every day.

“In both cases, though, what they’re valuing ... is a finite news experience, not an endless one.” 

Early results of the tech and two-tier pricing, she said,  have seen a 100% increase in online registrations, a 50% increase in user authentication, and a 4x increase in registration-to-subscription conversions.