German, Nordic research finds 9 takeaways for digital subscription content strategy

By Joonas Partanen


Helsinki, Finland


What kind of content is successful as paid content in a freemium model for media outlets in Germany and in the Nordic countries — and how do they implement this content strategy to the editorial team and execute it day in and day out?

These two questions were the core of my research project at Freie Universität in Berlin in 2019-20 before I returned to my position as publishing editor at Iltalehti in Finland. My research was interview-based because I wanted to get a proper insight of the thinking and practices behind the actual outcomes. I identified eight good interview partners who were willing to share their strategies and experiences.

The German media outlets that contributed to my project were Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Süddeutche Zeitung, Die Zeit, and Der Spiegel. From the Nordics I got case studies from four different countries: Helsingin Sanomat from Finland, Expressen from Sweden, VG from Norway, and Ekstra Bladet from Denmark.

Since my research project covered morning papers, tabloids, and weeklies from different countries, there were of course differences between the outlets, but overall the similarity between the best converting content areas and content types was highly notable.

Research conducted amongst eight media publishers in Germany and the Nordic countries yielded key takeaways for digital subscriptions and paid content.
Research conducted amongst eight media publishers in Germany and the Nordic countries yielded key takeaways for digital subscriptions and paid content.

From my research, I identified the following nine key takeaways.

1. End the week on a high

Whether the media organisation produces a morning newspaper, a weekly, or a tabloid, Sunday is largely the best day to convert and bring in sales. Saturdays, especially Saturday evenings, can be tricky because people are more occupied, but on Sundays a good story or interview, well-crafted with an interesting topic and a human touch, can very well be a hit. 

2. Convert with softer topics

It’s perhaps not a big surprise that tabloids sell well with issues regarding health, relationships, and sex. But would you have believed that this also applies to German morning newspapers and weeklies, which have traditionally been known for their coverage of politics and economics?

These softer themes seem to be the biggest drivers when it comes to converting. While there are differences between media outlets, this trend with lifestyle topics, health-related themes, and personal finances is clear. 

3. Personal relevance is key

During my research interviews, I came across concepts such as “relevant for you,” “service journalism,” “guiding material,” and “personal relevance” frequently. Whether it’s about how to invest money, buy a house, what to eat, when to sleep, who to date, how to lose weight, and so on, content that readers find personally useful resonates.

Softer themes don’t mean just human interest stories. They also mean useful content that gives value for the money spent.

4. Preserve editorial independence

When planning a digital paid content strategy, it’s important editorial independence is not compromised. Editors should be in contact with the marketing team to discuss potential target groups and content areas, and analytics should play a big role in providing data and a basis from which to operate. But editorial decisions must be kept in the newsroom within the editorial staff.

5. Lead from the front and the top

Many interviewees mentioned the editor-in-chief was active and visible when strategy for paid content was introduced. That is necessary. Managing editors, news editors, and digital and editorial chiefs need to have support from the top of the organisation. When the biggest bosses emphasise the importance of paid content, that helps with penetrating the approach throughout the editorial team.

6. Communicate, explain, and implement with care and patience

There is a saying that “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” I know from personal experiences that new things and initiatives are not usually instantly approved or even understood. It takes time and effort to implement a new strategic approach properly. A lot of communication is necessary.

This was evident in the research, where several of the interviewees openly said that different cultures, backgrounds, and goals make it sometimes hard and slow to change things.

7. Motivate with examples and share the data

Some journalists feel their articles, and the reach they would get, are lost if they are put behind the paywall. Some journalists believe their only job is to write, not to convert or sell, leading to resistance or uncertainty among the editorial team.

The best way to tackle this is by presenting examples and the value of those examples. Every journalist feels flattered when he or she notices a reader has paid actual money to read his or her article. Pageviews and reach are not irrelevant, but paying for content with a subscription shows so much more value from the customer, compared to a click.

8. Show the value to the customer to retain them

Digital subscribers are not as loyal as print subscribers, so they must be convinced about the value of the subscription over and over again. That can’t be done by concentrating only on the paid content, but also through making the customer feel the value of being a subscriber.

Constantly show what they get that non-subscribers don’t, and demonstrate that your content is worth paying for. 

9. Don’t forget the free content and the reach — but don’t be scared, either

Even if digital subscriptions are the spearhead of strategy for certain media outlets, focusing only on that can be dangerous. For many big nationwide media outlets with a freemium model, the number of people who visit the Web site is many times higher than the number of subscribers.

That is important in two ways:

  • As a source of advertising money.
  • As a funnel for future subscribers.

It’s a balancing act to serve both the non-paying and paying customers in the best possible way. Paying customers must get value for their money, but non-subscribers must be motivated for future visits. My interviews didn’t provide a magical solution to this, but rather a reminder that this is something that one shouldn’t forget. 

If you want to dive deeper into the insights, examples, and interviews from my research, you can do so here.

About Joonas Partanen

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