Testing helps SZ/BZ improve digital growth

By Christian Röhm

Röhm Medien | Sindelfinger Zeitung/Böblinger Zeitung

Sindelfingen, Baden-Württemberg, Germany


In April 2021, Sindelfinger Zeitung/Böblinger Zeitung (SZ/BZ), a local publishing house in Germany’s Stuttgart region, joined the Facebook Accelerator programme. Over the course of 12 weeks, SZ/BZ realised significant digital growth — specifically, that meant an increase of digital test subscriptions by 10x and a seven-fold increase of newsletter subscriptions.

During its 12 weeks in the Facebook Accelerator programme, SZ/BZ enjoyed significant digital growth.
During its 12 weeks in the Facebook Accelerator programme, SZ/BZ enjoyed significant digital growth.

Here are some of the things we learned in the programme:

Lesson 1: Prioritise digital subscriptions and build teams to ensure nothing stands in the way of execution

For some time before the start of the programme, SZ/BZ had already established a polar star team to drive Web subscriptions of the newly created szbz+. Now, “generating paid digital subscriptions” was prioritised as our No. 1 goal. The polar star team was created to account for that, now consisting of publisher, publishing director, editor-in-chief, lead tech & design, and lead social media. All those aboard were to ensure:

  • Fast decisions.
  • Prioritisation over other projects.
  • Multiplication to involve the entire company.

Lesson 2: Be a constructive copycat

Best-case studies and benchmarking of the technical aspects of a digital subscription model identified the shortcomings and bottlenecks of the existing SZ/BZ approach. Our user interface was built based on system requirements rather than user experience, which we discovered was a no-go.

We learned that tech performance and UX must stand up to any comparison, but we do not need to reinvent the wheel to achieve that; proven concepts do work for us. Adopt and adapt existing models from benchmark publishing houses to save time and energy to do what we do uniquely well: Create valuable content from our region for our users.

Promoting one digital offer as a "bestseller" was effective in increasing subscriptions.
Promoting one digital offer as a "bestseller" was effective in increasing subscriptions.

Consequently, we adopted proven concepts such as:

  • Creating big and shiny “subscribe here” buttons.
  • Including pop-ups and interstitials.
  • Offering three clearly defined subscription models with one being labelled as “bestseller.”
  • Streamlining the checkout flow to minimise user effort.

Lesson 3: Make it personal, make it local

“People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.” The credo of Simon Sinek is all the more true with the news. Why are we doing local news? Because we love living here and we strive to make this place even better. Does this appeal to you as a user? Great! Now we have common ground.

We want to address our users personally and on common ground and thus emotionalise the buying decision: We are local just like our users and we can use this as a differentiator to create a strong, long-term connection.

The lessons learned in the Facebook Accelerator programme have helped SZ/BZ make a stronger connection with its readers.
The lessons learned in the Facebook Accelerator programme have helped SZ/BZ make a stronger connection with its readers.

How we do that:

  • We use actual pictures and names of our editors in newsletters, paywalls, and service information. Our editors live in the region, people know them, and they stand for their product.
  • We do not use terms such as “region” or “local” but use the actual names such as “Sindelfingen,” “Böblingen,” etc., and thus make abstract wordings tangible.
  • We create common ground in all our promotions: “You love living in Sindelfingen, so do we! And we try hard to make living here even better every day. You can contribute to that by subscribing.”

Lesson 4: A bias for testing

The learnings above are not merely hypotheses. They are proven hypotheses. All adjustments, all changes are tested and — in cases of success — adopted. We form hypotheses, then we define testing periods and how we measure results. Testing has become not only an important decision-making tool for us but a philosophy.

  • Testing shortens discussion, because … well let’s test it. In other words, we wondered whether former subscribers can better be won back with a free trial or a special offer. An A/B test is currently answering the question.
  • Testing keeps us learning because even the strongest hypotheses are frequently proven wrong. For example, we strongly hypothesised that “speaking” newsletter subjects will increase open rates vs. repetitive newsletter subjects. The test showed it doesn’t make the slightest difference.
  • Testing makes step-by-step success tangible. Increasing the digital subscriber base takes time and is a process consisting of myriad small steps. Testing all of those steps keeps you on track and focused and lets you maintain momentum.

The last couple of months have shown us that winning paying digital subscribers is not black magic but follows clear mechanisms that work. And they work even better if we constantly adjust and refine them to our local context.

It is in our hands to increase the speed of our digital growth. Seeing that creates a pioneering spirit in our team.

The Audience Analytics Accelerator programme is a joint initiative between Facebook and INMA. The Facebook Journalism Project’s Accelerator programme helps news publishers build sustainable businesses. Funded and organised by the Facebook Journalism Project, each Accelerator includes a three-month period of hands-on workshops led by news industry veterans, grants administered by non-profit journalism organisations, and regular reports on best business practices. The Accelerator’s executive director is Tim Griggs, an independent consultant/advisor and former New York Times and Texas Tribune executive. Facebook and INMA have partnered to bring dozens of publishers from around the world into INMA's Readers First initiative. This case study reflects the partnership between INMA and the Facebook Journalism Project to develop excellence among leading global publishers in reader revenue initiatives. 

About Christian Röhm

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