Whatever a strategy, culture will eat it for breakfast, as Peter Drucker famously wrote. Consider news media journeys: from print-focused to primarily digital, from advertising-based to subscription-first, from product-oriented to customer-centric. In a session at the INMA Media Subscriptions Summit 2.0 in Stockholm on Thursday morning, the audience heard from two news subscriptions leaders how they make it all work together: strategy objectives, talent, skills, and culture.

Grupo RBS, Brazil

Grupo RBS began its digital transformation three years ago, Andiara Petterle told the audience.

Petterle, the company’s vice president of product and operations, said addressing the advertising business became a priority as print advertising revenue continued to decline. What once were separate print, broadcast, and radio operations have now merged into one company.

RBS has increased print prices by 20% annually to subsidise the loss.

“People are still paying,” Petterle said. “They’re not going to pay that forever. So we’ve started realising we have to monetise print edition.”

Andiara Petterle of Grupo RBS told the INMA audience the company has increased print prices by 20% annually.
Andiara Petterle of Grupo RBS told the INMA audience the company has increased print prices by 20% annually.

RBS began the shift toward a digital subscription model, reducing all aspects of the business that were not in line with its core mission. It sold some newspaper brands that had been with the company for more than 50 years, Petterle said, to focus on accelerating digital at the three remaining brands. 

“So, we are exactly at this turning point moment,” she said. “From April on, I’ll have more digital-only subscribers than I will have from print.”

To drive digital growth, Petterle said the company is focused on products, processes, and sales channels. RBS needs to think like a telecommunications company, she added, by understanding audience needs and betting on segmented products.

One RBS brand, GaúchaZH, combines the best of its newspaper and radio content behind a metered paywall. The app takes advantage of push notifications to grab audience attention toward breaking, live radio stories.

“With the radio content, it is so engaging,” Petterle said. “So we use push notifications to push what is live right now. It will become an article. It will become something written five minutes later.” 

The app is also an entry product to other offerings from the company, such as football and beauty apps. Upselling is an important strategy across RBS apps. A football app dedicated to fans of a specific team gives users the opportunity to interact with hosts, a feature Petterle said users are willing to pay for.

“It’s not for impartial journalism,” she said. “It’s really journalists that are fans narrating and writing all the articles. So it’s really not the journalism we learned to do at university, but people really love to interact.”

When it comes to process, Petterle said upselling is one way they are thinking like a telecommunications company. Engaging everyone in the company’s strategy is also crucial.

“We all know that culture eats strategy for lunch, for breakfast, for dinner, all the time,” she said. 

RBS shifted to an agile team organisational structure to support its new business goals, bypassing traditional bottlenecks that would hold them back. Rethinking sales channels has resulted in new opportunities for the company. News products are now bundled with cable company offerings. University partnerships have become an engagement channel as well a sales channel.

Strategy and culture shifts have pushed RBS closer to its future goals, Petterle said. “We’ve started to really grow when we changed the structure of the business.”

Handelsblatt Media Group, Germany

At Handelsblatt, a shift in business culture followed a realisation that a metered paywall was creating competition between its subscriptions and advertising business models. After a year and a half of evaluating different options, Handelsblatt went to a fully paid content model in 2018.

“It soon turned out to be a new corporate strategy,” Patrick Stolte, director of sales and consumer business at Handelsblatt, said.

This shift changed the mindset of the company. Hiring a new deputy chief editor helped drive the project and lead the team in its focus on the most important KPIs surrounding engagement. Handelsblatt also set up two new teams in the editorial department, one focused on engagement and the other on conversion.

Patrick Stolte of Handelsblatt explained his company's shift to an audience-first focus.
Patrick Stolte of Handelsblatt explained his company's shift to an audience-first focus.

Internal audience-centric changes combined with an initiative to insource customer care — which receives 25,000 calls with questions, complaints, and suggestions per month — has changed the company’s understanding of its audience. “We now know more of our customers than we ever have in the past,” Stolte said.

Since instituting these changes, the company has seen paywall sales rise 25%, while paid subscriptions in app have jumped by 686%.

Stolte then shared lessons the company has learned over the past 15 months.

  • Be focused.

  • Consistency in data is essential.

  • Paywall/subscription is a cultural decision, not a technical one.

  • A/B Testings are key.

  • Create valuable and understandable products.

  • Focus on customer needs and USPs.

Despite all of these changes, Stolte said the most important thing Handelsblatt did not change is content. Audience trust in the brand lies in its content, he added: “This would really kill our trust in the brand we have.”