At Helsingin Sanomat (HS), we recently engineered a huge shift in our online business model. HS now has combined print and digital circulation of 325,000 and a total reach of 1.8 million in a country with a population of only 5.5 million — and we are seeing paid online subscription growth with younger readers.

To understand why and how we orchestrated this transformation, it is important to know the history of our digital content offerings:

  • When HS first offered content online in 1996, it was available for print subscribers only. From 2000 onwards, a free, continuously updated news service was launched, and started growing rapidly.
  • In 2003, all daily print editorial content was published online and digital-only subscriptions were available — digital access also cost extra for print subscribers then.
  • By 2012, HS had gained a few thousand digital-only subscribers and around 30% of print subscribers were paying extra for digital access.
  • A metered paywall model was introduced in November 2012 — only five articles per week were available for free (with the same browser).
  • From 2012 to 2016, digital-only subscriptions grew tenfold, and more than 50% of our subscriber base was paying for digital, but the growth reached a plateau.

At that point, we came to several realisations. Although digital subscriptions were growing, it was mostly older generations dropping the print and moving to digital, rather than new generations of native digital readers.

Most young people didn’t see a point in paying for a digital subscription, as the metered wall was so easy to bypass and all the most interesting content was shared in social media and granted free referral access.

We acknowledged that our subscriber base was not growing, and in fact had steadily declined since 1992 and had aged three years in just two years (so at that point the churners were younger than new subscribers).

Things had to change.

We analysed all our content and who read it. We studied what content different reader segments valued, maybe even enough to pay for it. And we steered our content strategy to focus especially on society, science, well being, and culture. These topics, especially the last three, attracted younger audiences, raised willingness to pay, and were already strong areas for us.

The diamond symbol became a key component of Helsingin Sanomat's successful conversion from a metered paywall to offering premium content behind a hard paywall.
The diamond symbol became a key component of Helsingin Sanomat's successful conversion from a metered paywall to offering premium content behind a hard paywall.

For younger people to start subscribing, we not only needed desirable content, but also needed to stop giving it to them for free. That sounds simple, but at the same time we didn’t want to go totally behind a hard wall. We wanted to keep the beginning of the funnel large, maintain our online reader base (around 10 times bigger than our subscriber base), and not alienate the ones that didn’t (yet) pay.

So in 2016, we started testing a premium online offer with hand-picked articles behind a hard paywall — built, measured, and learned. These are mainly feature-like articles that dive deep into a topic, expert-based, and uncompromising of journalistic principles.

We also A/B tested and found out it was a good idea to offer a free two-week sample subscription at the wall. A no-commitment, easy-to-take trial started to deliver 10+ thousands of leads per month to our consumer sales — and up to 70% were totally new base. A majority were much younger than the average age of our typical subscriber base.

Consumer sales has been able to convert these to paying subscribers with very good success rates, and naturally the existence of the hard wall (i.e. not giving the best content away for free) helps sales in general.

These premium articles are hand-picked, unique, and often take a long time to form — just like diamonds. So we now mark our premium content with a diamond symbol and use the diamond emoji in social media. The diamond symbol has been a key element in marketing our online paid content to subscribers and non-subscribers.

This symbol resulted after a few iterations. Before the diamond, we tried a “subscribers only” tag and a lock symbol, both of which proved aversive with non-subscribers. We also considered a key, which could be viewed as more “solution-oriented.” But then a producer on our team came up with a diamond because her kids liked collecting diamonds in a mobile game.

It seems adults like to hunt for diamonds as well. Since the fourth quarter of 2016, we’ve offered one to three diamond articles per day, resulting so far in:

  • 57% growth in digital-only subscriptions.
  • 16% growth in the number of digital paying subscriptions.
  • 23% increase in the number of digital paying subscribers under age 45, and the average age of subscriber base is now getting younger.
  • Most remarkably, the total number of subscriptions turned to year-on-year growth for the first time 25 years.

We are still continuously experimenting, analysing, learning, and understanding better. A lot of growth potential probably lies in dynamic optimising of premium, both content and offering, for each user. Machine learning can enhance content delivery. Interesting times ahead one could say — with fairly solid ground to build upon.