Why do you subscribe to a newspaper? Is it just an exchange of money for content — or is it more? Is it about a shared world view? About shared values? Might it even be about a mission you believe in?
At Die Zeit, we know our newspaper is more than just paper and ink, and our subscribers are more than mere customers — to us, they are friends.
That is the reason we launched a membership programme called “Freunde der Zeit” (Friends of Die Zeit) in late 2017. The programme is the manifestation of a new relationship between a newspaper and its subscribers. News media publishing has long been characterised by a pure sender-recipient relationship, with only a few channels dedicated to personal interaction. We felt the need to change that, and have now entered into a continuous conversation with our more than 350,000 subscribers.
Celebrating live journalism
A cornerstone of our programme is a series of exclusive events for our subscribers we host throughout our German-speaking market. Through these events, we are moving closer to our subscribers to celebrate live journalism with them, listen to their feedback, and provide answers to their questions.
In more than 110 events (as of March 2020), we have established a culture of transparency, trust, respect, and openness between our journalists and subscribers.
The most prominent example is a series of events hosted by our editor-in-chief, Giovanni di Lorenzo, called “Readers’ Parliament.” At these events, Lorenzo listens to an audience of 400 to 2,000 subscribers and explains Die Zeit’s editorial decisions and strategic projects, as well as sharing some of his lessons learned. Subscribers also get the chance to propose topics Die Zeit should investigate, and the Readers’ Parliament votes on the most promising recommendations.
Another well-received format is “Behind the Stories,” in which three reporters share the personal experiences behind their articles, giving subscribers an intimate insight into the newsroom.
Developing digital benefits
While these in-person events bring a certain depth and a new quality into the relationship between Die Zeit and our subscribers, we have also pivoted to offer many digital benefits to support the frequency of contact and the continuity of the programme.
In today’s COVID world, we can’t meet in person on a weekly basis with 350,000 friends — but we can curate e-books, offer podcasts, give discounts, and launch competitions, along with many other services that are relevant to our subscribers. This is our way to stay in touch between live events and make the subscription more valuable to our subscriber base.
All these events and benefits are bundled in a weekly newsletter and a half-page ad in the print edition of our newspaper. In addition to the strong benefits offered, we need to make sure our subscribers are aware of those benefits and that we find the right tone that corresponds to our journalism and our live events when we address them.
We also understand that surveys and a strong customer support via e-mail and over the phone are a necessary building block for upholding a sincere relationship with our subscribers.
A membership programme is supposed to be more than just another marketing channel — it’s a mindset that needs to be reflected in all of your activities. In our case, it has been a joint initiative of the newsroom and the marketing department, and as such it pursues both economic and journalistic goals.
From an economic point of view, the main objective is to increase subscriber retention and reduce churn. We have found the first four weeks of new subscription are a decisive period for Die Zeit. In that period, subscribers can test Die Zeit for free and have the opportunity to experience the newspaper in a live format, and are offered a multitude of additional reasons to take out a paid subscription.
The programme also offers manifold opportunities to connect sponsors and partners to Die Zeit’s 350,000 strong subscriber base. Sponsored events provided to subscribers are just one example of how revenue is generated with partners in the membership model.
Changing the relationship with readers
The editorial staff is the building block of this comprehensive programme, and they must be just as convinced of the viability of the programme as the marketing department. Die Zeit has put considerable attention to the immediate and personal interaction with its subscribers.
By building a strong relationship with its subscriber base, Die Zeit aims to strengthen subscribers’ trust in high-quality journalism. From those interactions with subscribers taking part in the Freunde der Zeit programme, a number of fields for further journalistic research have been identified.
Since the introduction of Freunde der Zeit, there has been a cultural shift promoted by the continuous conversation between our editors and their readers. Print editors, particularly, appreciate the new feedback channel and find additional stimuli. They can ask for input via polls, integrate subscribers early in the development process of new formats, and invite them to news conferences.
After two-and-a-half years of continuous subscriber interaction, we can recommend that every news company could strengthen that relationship with readers and start the conversation. It will pay off in many ways.