How Die Zeit’s membership model turns subscribers into members

By Shelley Seale

INMA

Austin

Connect   

How do you engage and retain your subscribers? This question is becoming more and more important to news media companies around the world. Germany’s leading quality newspaper, Die Zeit, has found an answer with its membership programmeme, “Freunde der Zeit” (Friends of Die Zeit).

With this programme, the company is treating its most loyal readers like friends. Friendship means having a continuous conversation in both directions. At regular events, readers and editors get to know each other and discuss quality journalism and the future of “their” newspaper. Reporters are retelling the stories behind their stories live on stage, and readers can regularly visit the newsroom and attend reader parliaments to discuss topics they think editors should report on.

In a Webinar on Wednesday, the team behind Freunde der Zeit shared its experiences and insights from its first two years with INMA members.

An INMA Webinar showed how Die Zeit turned subscribers into friends through membership.
An INMA Webinar showed how Die Zeit turned subscribers into friends through membership.

The Webinar was presented by Lennart Schneider, project manager, and Wencke Tzanakakis, head of the programme.

Freunde der Zeit started about three years ago as an experiment to treat Die Zeit’s customers more like friends and have real, in-person discussions.

“Why did we even start this project?” Schneider began the Webinar. “It all started with a very simple insight — the loyalty of our subscribers is what makes our journalism here at Die Zeit possible.”

That reader loyalty, the team realised, was its most important asset. “[Because of] their willingness to pay for our newspaper on a weekly basis, we are able to invest in quality journalism, we are able to send our journalists all over the world and do such big stories.”

Looking at the numbers, Die Zeit’s strategy has been subscription first for the last 20 years or more. The subscription numbers have risen from 262,000 in 1998 to 347,000 in 2019.

Die Zeit, Germany's largest news publisher, has attained success with a membership programme for subscribers.
Die Zeit, Germany's largest news publisher, has attained success with a membership programme for subscribers.

“This is an essential part of our business strategy, and that is why we care so deeply about our relationship with our subscribers. That’s why we’re willing to invest in this relationship,” Schneider said. “Against all market trends, we are growing in revenue and circulations.”

The team reached out to its subscribers to get their valuable input, asking key questions such as: Why do you subscribe to a newspaper rather than pick it up at a newsstand? Why do you make that commitment?

They identified three main benefits that could be motivations for subscribers:

  • Free delivery.
  • 5% discount.
  • Free giveaways such as iPads or kitchenware.

While these things are definitely incentives, Schneider said, they have two things in common: they are rational, versus emotional, reasons; and they are not exclusive to Die Zeit (similar incentives at other media companies).

“They don’t differentiate us from our competitors,” he said. “So we made a mission to make subscription great again.”

The subscription economy

While newspapers have traditionally been sold via subscription, today’s subscription economy is vastly different. New models such as those subscriptions sold by Netflix, Spotify, and Apple Music have moved into the field. Subscription models have also reached the retail space, such as Amazon Prime, and the software space such as Office365.

“Moving even farther away from our main business, you can see that you can order your food now [HelloFresh and others], you can subscribe to your car with Care by Volvo, and you can also subscribe to your bike.” The last model is in reference to a European company that allows customers to subscribe to a bicycle on a monthly basis, including all repairs, and can give it back anytime.

The subscription economy has grown from newspapers and periodicals to streaming video and audio, as well as retail, food, and transportation.
The subscription economy has grown from newspapers and periodicals to streaming video and audio, as well as retail, food, and transportation.

“They are doing this very, very well,” Schneider said of all these companies. “They are setting a new standard, and we have to think about what we can learn from them and how we can improve and meet those new standards.”

Customer motivation

The motivations of today’s customers have also changed. Subscribers pay for access to content, while supporters pay to support the mission of public journalism.

Die Zeit has been on the subscriber side, along with many other media companies. On the supporter side lie public radio such as NPR, public journalism such as The Guardian, etc.

Over the last five years, however, a new model has emerged that straddles the line between subscriber and supporter. “There has been a new group of media companies that sits in the middle, and that is what we define as membership,” Schneider said. “Membership means that you pay to support a mission, and you get benefit in return. So you’ve got the best of both worlds, you try to run a very mission-driven approach, but also give people some rational arguments to be a member and to pay money.”

Some media organisations that fall in this category include De Correspondent out of The Netherlands and platforms such as Steady and Patreon.

Media companies have been steadily moving to the middle ground between subscription and supporters: membership.
Media companies have been steadily moving to the middle ground between subscription and supporters: membership.

“Most companies from both edges have been moving towards the middle over the last years,” Schneider added. “The supporter-driven business models are offering more and more benefits to their members, and even the subscriber-based business models are going into this membership space and targeting their audiences with a more mission-driven approach.”

Customer experience and relationship

Tzanakakis then took over to talk about the customer experience, and what Die Zeit took away from all this. The name, Freunde der Zeit (friends of Die Zeit), sets the tone for its membership programme, which started two years ago.

“We developed the programme together with our readers and our journalists,” Tzanakakis said. Die Zeit is known for high-level, intellectual journalism, but the company wanted to move from an “on and off” relationship with its subscribers to a strong bond.

“We try to add to this very intellectual relationship, an emotional factor,” she said. “That’s why we called it Freunde der Zeit, because friends tell each other the truth — so the intellectual journalism still goes on. That’s our heart and core.”

But friends don’t only have a relationship from a distance; they also meet in person. “They are interested in each other. They don’t just tell what they think their truth is, but they also start to listen. That’s the emotional background we built our programme on.”

To create that in-person relationship, Freunde der Zeit based its programmeming around events. Through asking their readers directly, they learned that particularly in today’s political climate, readers love the journalism that Die Zeit puts forth.

“They want more of it — but not only read it, but get in touch with the people,” Tzanakakis said. “So we tried not to add different products, but we tried to diversify and personalise the journalistic approach to our brand. We started a huge factor of interaction and participation.”

Die Zeit offers three types of events for members: regional events, open houses, and readers parliaments.
Die Zeit offers three types of events for members: regional events, open houses, and readers parliaments.

This involves three event initiatives:

  1. The team brought reporters and readers together for frequent, regional events in every major and mid-sized German city, as well as even in Vienna and Switzerland, based on where most subscribers live. “We put reporters in touch with our subscribers, live,” Tzanakakis said. “The journalists rock the stage. They tell their story, they tell their big research, and they are the centre of attention and interaction with our subscribers.”
  2. Freunde der Zeit offers is “Open House,” which invites subscribers into the Die Zeit offices. This is done two or three times a year, except for in the main Hamburg office where open house is held every other month.
  3. Readers’ Parliament was the idea of the Editor-in-Chief Giovanni di Lorenzo. In a Readers’ Parliament, he goes out onto the stage in front of readers for two hours with no programme. “He just listens, and answers the questions that people have,” Tzanakakis said. The first session attracted more than two thousand people. In the second year, they took the parliaments from the main headquarters in Hamburg and went on the road, touring additional cities including Munich, Cologne, and Frankfurt.

“I hope this range gives you an idea that we don’t just want to tell, but we want to listen,” Tzanakakis said.

Zeit Kultur Karte

Another part of the programme is this “culture card,” which emphasises the value of Die Zeit and getting in touch with the cultural sphere. This is defined not only as reading and the arts, but also politics.

“Culture is really a high value for us, so we try to emphasise this value and give people even more reasons to come to Die Zeit,” Tzanakakis said.

The Zeit Kultur Karte offers members discounted tickets and other cultural benefits.
The Zeit Kultur Karte offers members discounted tickets and other cultural benefits.

The team partners with institutions to offer their subscribers discounted tickets to museums and theatres, as well as online benefits such as exclusive podcasts, through the Kultur Karte. There is also a fourth, brand new benefit to the card, which offers travel and tourism benefits.

Online content

The third part of the Freunde der Zeit programme is online content including:

  • Podcasts, which heighten the journalistic experience in a very modern way.
  •  E-books and audio books, in which they re-use their own content as well as partner with publishing houses.
  • Videos from the events that have been held.
Podcasts, e-books, and videos are online content exclusively for Freunde der Zeit members.
Podcasts, e-books, and videos are online content exclusively for Freunde der Zeit members.

These online content benefits are especially popular with subscribers who live outside the cities where events or Readers’ Parliaments are held.

Channels

What good is content, however, if you don’t have the right channels? This was the question posed by Tzanakakis. It was important to reach subscribers through the right channels.

For her team, these included:

  • Die Zeit: using the print newspaper to promote the Freunde der Zeit programme.
  • Newsletter: a new channel built just for the purpose of Freunde der Zeit to deliver benefits and journalism in another context.
  • Zeit Online: can be used to reach a younger crowd and those who are considering but haven’t quite converted to a subscription.
Member benefits and content are useless if they aren't promoted through the right channels.
Member benefits and content are useless if they aren't promoted through the right channels.

Evaluate the relationship: Is it worth it?

This all sounds like a lot of work, Schneider admitted, and also very expensive. To determine if it’s worth it, he said news organisations must evaluate the relationship and results.

“We are convinced it is very worth it, and we would like to share some numbers with you and some KPIs on how we evaluate the effectiveness of our programme,” he said.

  • 60,000+ registered friends to Freunde der Zeit — and growing.
  • 110+ exclusive events since 2017.
  • 61 net promoter score of the events (8.8/10 average rating).

“This means that people are interested in [the programme], but does it make sense on an economic level?” Schneider asked. “To answer this, we have to look at the customer journey.” This means evaluating the journey from the order, to the free trial period (four weeks), paid subscription, cancellation, and recovery.

“It is a programme that helps us with the conversion from free to paid subscription ... and we try to identify users with a high likelihood of churn and send them special invitations to events and to give them an insight into the benefits that they have within the Freunde der Zeit programme.”

Testing has shown that the programme is quite effective at retention. Those who have been invited to an Open House, for example, are shown to be less likely to churn.

Lastly, there is an aspect that Schneider said is very hard to measure but very easy to feel. Before starting the programme, Die Zeit readers felt mostly anonymous. Since starting Freunde der Zeit, however, the team has been able to meet and interact with thousands of readers, giving real faces to the names and building a true, personal relationship.

The Freunde der Zeit programme has given faces and real relationships to Die Zeit's readers.
The Freunde der Zeit programme has given faces and real relationships to Die Zeit's readers.

“We’ve really gotten to know our subscribers, and that is a big motivation not only for our team, but for our editorial staff,” Schneider said. “They see who they are doing their job for, and that is really something that we would say has had at least a slight impact on the culture in our offices.”

Make it happen

In conclusion, Tzanakakis shared some insight into how the team made it happen and how other news publishers can as well.

“The short answer is that the team is key,” she said. “The skillset is important to start a subscription membership model.”

The people who are interacting directly with the customers must be patient and have good people skills. Teams also need a digital-first innovator, someone who rocks events, a storytelling “heart and mind” who can find the right tone to relate to the editorial mission, talented production members, and someone who can successfully handle channels like newsletters and podcasts.

Recruiting the right people with the right skillsets for the membership team is key.
Recruiting the right people with the right skillsets for the membership team is key.

The editorial staff is also very important to the success of such a programme. “In house, networking is key,” Tzanakakis said. “We experience that a diverse team is really key.”

The team must be able to coordinate and cooperate, and members must be able to speak the various languages required:

  • Marketing.
  • Sales.
  • PR & events.
  • Journalism.

“We can and we should gather and group our activities for one goal: subscribers first,” Tzanakakis said. “That’s our mission.”

Having autonomy for the membership programme team is also important. They should be able to conceive and implement programmes without lengthy approval processes.

“What is key to us is to always ask the question: What do you need?” Tzanakakis shared. “We experiment and we standardise, we change the programme on the go.”

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