Helsingin Sanomat eases consumers, advertisers into paywall, format changes

By Caroline Lilius and Terhi Vaalavuo

In 2012, Helsingin Sanomat set out to challenge subscription readers, non-readers, and advertisers. Non-readers claimed that they were quite content with the supply of free news. Our insights were that people were constantly on the move, there were more and more single households, and the traditional large broadsheet print edition just did not fit into people’s lives.

On the other hand, the loyal readers loved the newspaper and resisted any changes. The challenge of introducing first a digital paywall and then transforming the daily into tabloid format seemed an impossible challenge, both internally and externally.

We realised we would really need to focus on communications and marketing, and have systematic follow-up to the reactions from all stakeholders. The tabloid was a tougher nut to crack with our large loyal customer base, so we decided to first introduce the paywall and then move on to the tabloid challenges. 

Together with the editorial management and a cross-functional project team, we worked out a detailed communications and marketing plan that would start well before the actual launch.

We set the goals for the entire project as follows:

  1. Get your people, readers, and advertisers involved.

  2. Be present and encourage dialogue.

  3. Emphasise usability in all channels – print tabloid is really a better fit for everyday life.

  4. Find the most relevant emotional benefits of quality journalism and communicate them efficiently.

  5. Convince both readers and advertisers that tabloid does not compromise quality journalism.

When focusing on and researching the emotional benefits, we realised the news and true stories from near and far raised the biggest emotions for readers. Combined with strong visuals and the best of photojournalism, we wanted to demonstrate that Helsingin Sanomat is not just headline news but stories that make you feel, think, and act. 

To catch the attention of the younger potential target groups, we needed something that would immediately raise awareness and create word of mouth and engagement. We ended up designing a four-meter-tall, colourful cube in the heart of Helsinki.

Readers were invited to go online and read the best stories from the day’s newspaper and then share the feelings they felt after reading them. The chosen feeling lit up the cube in real time. 

TV, print, and outdoor ads consisted of real journalistic images and videos representing feelings like hope, fear, anger, and joy.

The results of the campaign exceeded our expectations: 25% of the people in the metropolitan area saw the cube in action, the site had 50,000 visitors, and virtually no one went by without knowing that a major change of the newspaper was going on. 

The effect of all these efforts on sales was quite positive. We had a significant amount of new subscribers already before the launch. In January, sales grew 50% compared to the previous year and 40% of the subscribers were new subscribers. 

There was also a significant growth in single-copy sales; brand awareness and image rose to a higher level; and loyalty was strengthened even more than it had been before launch.

By launch date, we had almost all of our own people enthusiastically on board, and we had managed to convince both existing and new customers to try out and enjoy the renewed print edition.

About Caroline Lilius and Terhi Vaalavuo

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