On the first half of a two-city study tour as part of INMA’s Media Innovation Week, 33 news media executives representing 14 countries visited three publishers across Hamburg to learn European best practices to grow audience, revenue, and brand.

The two-day study tour takes news executives through some of the most interesting news companies in Hamburg and Berlin.
The two-day study tour takes news executives through some of the most interesting news companies in Hamburg and Berlin.

Visits to media houses and start-ups across the city — including Die Zeit, Funke Medien, and NOZ Digital — revealed insights into how media companies are innovating with their business models and products.

Die Ziet: News publisher+

With a diversity of offerings and revenue streams, Die Zeit is no longer just a publisher, Nils von der Kall, publishing director of marketing and circulation, said.

“I think publishing group is not the right word anymore because we are something beyond a publishing group,” von der Kall said.

Die Zeit is developing business outside its core with initiatives like:

Zeit Akademie: This education platform is not just for students. Thanks to the Die Zeit brand and network, Zeit Akademie has grown its B2B offering over the past three years, Sales Manager Katharina Kreienborg said. Employees have concerns about keeping up on new skills and remaining employable, and companies want to companies want to offer education opportunities and keep the right people in the company.

“In the context of digitization, everything changes” Kreiegborg said. “The way we work changes, different qualifications change, and the jobs change.”

It is important for companies to offer education to keep the right people in the company. Zeit Akademie helps them do so by offering four main topics in the B2B product: digitisation, executive development, personality and communication, and methods. In delivering this content, Zeit Akademie makes it easy for a company and its staff to start an e-learning programme, Kreienborg said.

It was a mistake to wait so long to enter the B2B market, von der Kall said. Die Zeit itself is profitable on its own, but the revenue opportunities in this market are great. 

Die Zeit is more than just a publisher these days, study tour attendants heard.
Die Zeit is more than just a publisher these days, study tour attendants heard.

Z+Before there was a pay model on the Web site, there was only a 48% overlap in content published in the print and digital platforms. In 2017, the company launched its Z+ model on the Web site and began publishing content earlier than the newspaper hit newsstands.

The free tier of the model offers content picked by editors, the registration model requires an e-mail and lets users read three articles per week, and the paid model offers full access.

“This means we basically now have a digital subscription package,” said Marco Kaiser, chief technology officer of Zeit Online. “We call this 360 Degrees, which includes all the different digital news formats we offer.”

Four years after the launch of Z+, the company has more a digital circulation of more than 127,000. For print and digital combined, the company has a circulation of more than 350,000.

The editorial team faced a learning curve to balance where it published content most likely to convert. There was a significant effect on subscriptions almost immediately after the team began this work. The company also launched what it called the “Sweden Model,” a lesson from a previous study tour visit to Mittmedia. The most important content of the day is available for free in the morning for two hours, then closed behind the paywall. This helps the team keep an article’s reach potential but optimise its conversion opportunity.

The company has layered user specific data into its strategy. Data models are incorporated into a customer’s lifetime cycle. A propensity model is used to turn an anonymous user into a known user, and engagement score is applied when a user starts a trial subscription. Later in the cycle, upsell automation and churn prevention models are applied.

Funke Mediengruppe: Local, local, local

Zeit is a brand-driven business, observed Dr. Ruth Betz, head of digital transformation at Funke Mediengruppe. Funke, she said, is all about local news. The company works to bring its brands under one roof to an extent, but it is really about keeping its brands local.

Funke’s Hamburger Abendblatt has a history of innovation, Berndt Röttger, deputy editor-in-chief, said. The company has been doing digital since 1956, when a news ticker made of 10,500 lightbulbs was installed above the Reeperbahn.

In a more modern sense of digital, Röttger said the brand launched its first Web site in 1996 and its paywall in 2009.

“Because of this, we were blamed,” he said.

The industry asked how the company expected to make money and believed it would have a negative impact on the market. Today, the company has more than 30,000 subscribers and a freemium model.

In print innovation, the company looked toward magazines. In 2.5 years, Hamburger Abendblatt has published 23 special-topic magazines and has a circulation of more than 500,000. Almost all of the content is from the newspaper archives. 

When it started its User First project, previously called “Oslo Project,” Röttger said his team went through multiple iterations of rethinking its new departments. One regional department ran with the opportunity: “They said, “We can do it, let’s see,” and they did it quickly and were done,” he said.

Data and dashboards are making a significant difference in the newsrooms. Dr. Betz talked about making a surprise visit to Hamburger Abendblatt 10 months after observing a data-driven briefing being largely glossed over at a morning meeting. While giving morning numbers, a team member mentioned he did not know an updated stat because the algorithm was not reporting data they expected. The editorial team jumped in asking, “Why is that happening, what can we do?”

“They are really making decisions based on the data,” she said.

Getting this far in the User First strategy has taken a lot of effort. Establishing a learning culture, increasing transparency, and adding an article score algorithm have been major factors in organisational change.

NOZ Digital: News, audio, horses

All across Hamburg, media companies are rapidly growing their digital efforts. Local regional publisher NOZ Digital, now 1 year old, is using its Hamburg office as a digital hub even though it does not serve the area.

Study tour participants visit NOZ in Hamburg on Thursday.
Study tour participants visit NOZ in Hamburg on Thursday.

NOZ Medien and mh:n Medien combined in 2016 and set up its Hamburg office in between the two regions of Germany the combined company now serves. Beyond three main news portals and apps, with a total digital subscription audience of more than 100,000, NOZ is diversifying its revenue streams. The company’s ehorses platform sells a horse every 18 minutes, Nicolas Fromm, managing director of digital, said. 

Patrick Körting, business development manager, said audio is a natural extension of news media brands’ current efforts.

Körting said when he began working at NOZ, he knew the company’s model was based on text-based news. He wondered if there was a way to leverage the content that has already been produced and enter the audio market. Nearly 60% of Germans already use audio, and 29% already pay for it, Körting said.

“I think that the trend means people going away from entertainment content and going in the direction of informational content,” he said. “It’s not that people are becoming less stupid, it’s because there has been nothing like it. It’s filling a need.”

His team created an audio survey to better understand the opportunities in audio. They found that people tend to use audio on demand in three scenarios: while they are commuting, doing household chores, and or doing their morning routines. It’s all about routine, he said. People are no longer sitting and reading a newspaper in the morning, so there is an opportunity to create new routines.

“This is an opportunity to create the lifetime value of a user,” Körting said.

NOZ has identified three main drivers of its paid content strategy: 

  • User experience: In reevaluating its paywall, the company has completed 180 A/B tests on the paywall since the beginning of 2019. “You can’t tell that the paywall of today will not be the paywall of tomorrow,” Fromm said. “It will always change to try to optimise conversions.”
  • Content: NOZ did a test with an article teaser done by a computer and done by an editor, finding the generic one performed better 72% of the time. “We hope to learn from this how to write ours better,” Fromm said.
  • Sales: NOZ is adjusting its conversion funnel to guide users individually based on how they access the landing page. If someone types in the Web site directly, they have a different purchase path than someone who accessed the Web site from specific content pages. “We have learned that testing, testing, testing is so important,” Fromm said. “With a 270% increase in nine months, that is something that has us looking at a bright future when it comes to paid content.”

HHLab, NOZ’s research and development lab, is asking audiences what their values are and how those values are reflected in media. The team is also prototyping with users to learn what people need and what their pain points are. When they team has learned what tools to use and what users need, the team transitions into project development.

Though the team is focused on research and development, there is one thing that is very important to the process, Dreykluft said. “Mindsetting” gives NOZ’s staff the tools to better work with each other and serve audiences. This includes Instagram classes and design thinking workshops.

Friday, the study tour heads to Berlin.