Standard Group builds on data, culture for paywall model

By Shelley Seale


Austin, Texas, USA


Carol Kimutai, managing editor of digital at Standard Group Limited in Kenya, referenced the Frank Sinatra song when she said that the motto of Standard was they “did it their way.”

“We’ve had interesting lessons along the way, and it’s been a journey of learning we started in 2020,” she said.

Kimutai joined Dr. Anderson Uvie-Emegbo of China International Europe Business School in an INMA members-only Webinar on Thursday, expanding the theme of expanding news subscribers in Africa by offering a case study.

In 2019, the team made a strategic decision to implement a business transformation project to make Standard Group a fully digital-first multimedia operation. They realised the traditional business model was no longer working, and transformation was necessary to be a sustainable business.

Carol Kimutai of The Standard Group shared the transformation and lessons learned by her team.
Carol Kimutai of The Standard Group shared the transformation and lessons learned by her team.

This was precipitated by the fact that the government of Kenya, then the Standard’s largest advertising client, cut their spend and opted to publish their own inserts. In addition, they were very slow in paying.

In March of 2020, the group changed their office layout and way of working, with everyone seated together in an open-plan office spread over three floors, all open to each other.

“Business transformation was basically mindshift and culture change,” Kimutai said. “This is an organisational-wide agenda that starts from the shareholders right through the board, ExCo, ManCo, staff, and clients. It involved reorganising our operations, and it also involved a new strategy, a change of roles and change of titles, new workflows, new technology, new products and most importantly, a new culture.”

The Standard Group in Kenya shared the story of its transformation to reader revenue model.
The Standard Group in Kenya shared the story of its transformation to reader revenue model.

Let’s talk about reader revenue

Kimutai shared the building blocks of reader revenue. The team studied a lot of other media brands, keeping content at the centre of their operations.

The rule of thumb at Standard is that all stories go digital-first, supported by social media. One of the biggest facets of the transformation was the new role of data scientists, who track the numbers in reader revenue and all the data accumulated from readers.

“That information is very important because it’s the link between editorial teams and content,” Kimutai said. “If we review our videos, we know the types of videos that do well and on which platforms. They tell us, and then we produce more of that content.”

Customer insights is another new role introduced during the transformation.

“Before we build any new product, before we tweak any product that we have in-house, we get consumer insights and we understand what the consumer behaviours are. And that is what informs our content strategy.”

Next, they added a reader revenue manager, whose role it is to develop ways to monetise the content. He works closely with the digital tech team and customer service to understand the customers and their needs.

The Standard Group's building blocks of reader revenue include content, data, and customer support.
The Standard Group's building blocks of reader revenue include content, data, and customer support.

The digital tech team works closely with UI/UX experts to understand the user journey experience on the Standard Web site, as well as data scientists.

“Data is at the core of our operations,” Kimutai said. “You’re going to see how we changed our pricing over time, how we started by changing how many articles people could access.”

She shared details on specific actions the team took on this:

  • Introduced a log-in requirement across the entire Web site, requiring readers to create an account to access both free and premium content.

  • Introduced a soft paywall using a metred approach that asked readers to pay after reading 15 articles; later this was reduced to 10 articles.

  • Installed an introductory payment plan of daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly. They have since reviewed those prices.

  • Introduced a hard paywall for the Nairobian Online in December 2020.

  • Used data to understand price sensitivity and audience behaviour.

  • Reorganised the entire newsroom, led by the editor-in-chief with top leadership including head of news, intake editor, digital editor, print editor, three continuity editors, and a broadcast editor.

  • Redesigned the Web site and newspaper in April 2021, and built an e-newspaper using in-house developers.

  • Installed data dashboards that are seen by editors and displayed in the newsroom, all tied to KPIs.

  • Trained newsroom staff to understand data analytics, audience behaviour, and which content to put behind the paywall.

Part of the process included asking their audience if they would pay for content. Kimutai pointed out that this is a market accustomed to getting news content for free.

“What has been key is the culture and training, the change of mindset,” she said. “Our meetings start with data presentation — what are readers reading, what are they saying, what content should we put behind the paywall?”

Where the Standard Group is now

Where did this transformation lead the company? Kimutai shared where the team is currently:

  • Content strategy: driven by data, developed an internal content engagement score that is used to rate the content.

  • Customer discovery: based on audience segmentation — casual readers and brand lovers.

  • Monetisation strategy: based on the freemium paywall and developed an average revenue per user (ARPU) formula.

  • Registered users: 950,000.

  • Newsroom products: videos, text, photos, podcasts, and newsletters.

  • Culture change: driven from the board, staff training, job enrichment and coaching, and a digital master class that is part of continuous development.

  • Unified access: users only need one account to access all digital assets.

Lessons and opportunities

Kimutai shared key lessons learned by the team during this transformation process.

  • Culture eats strategy for breakfast.

  • Top leadership has to buy into reader revenue and understand the monetisation and content strategy.

  • They must experiment, fail fast, and learn from it. This means build a culture of innovation and allow mistakes.

  • Digital tech is embedded in the newsroom, done through in-house developers who help in turning around products and implementing new features.

  • Understanding consumer behaviour. Paying for content is a new concept in Africa and is driven by spot buys where a user is willing to pay for content at the moment they are interested in it, but not necessarily willing to commit long-term.

  • MPesa (the most common payment method in Kenya) has been both a winning tactic and a major challenge — it makes it easy for users to pay, but the downside is that it doesn’t allow auto-renewals.

  • Use data and think data — it’s key to everything.

“The biggest lesson is culture,” she emphasised. “If you don’t start with the change of mindset, all of these things we are talking about will not work. There’s nothing as valuable as having a lesson from a failed project.”

About Shelley Seale

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