Along with its partners, Mittelbayerische Zeitung and the collaborative “Drive” initiative of regional German publishers won it all in the 2021 INMA Global Media Awards competition on Thursday amid 644 entries from 212 news media brands in 37 countries.
Shortly after the winning announcement — and before a somewhat lonely champagne toast as Germany slowly opens back up — INMA talked with Meinolf Ellers, chief digital officer at Deutsche Presse-Agentur; Dr. Christoph Mayer, AI lead at Schickler; and Rolf-Dieter Lafrenz, managing partner at Schickler, about the win, the initiative, and the magic weaving through it all.
“We are absolutely thrilled,” Ellers said. “We were pretty optimistic to win in our category but then … that we finally made it to the Best of Show, of course, exceeds all expectations. We know that this approach we have taken with DRIVE to make the central strategic task of data-driven digital subscriptions a team effort is really something that is pretty unique, even on the global stage. Still, being in this race with so many fantastic brands, this is really awesome.”
The intiative, birthed by DPA (a cooperative national German news agency) and Schickler (a management consultancy), involves 10 regional German publishers who have teamed up to share their audience analytics, reader engagement, and digital subscriptions data and best practices.
“In light of our overall strategic goal to drive digital revenue fast and sustainably, DRIVE is like a lottery win,” said Manfred Sauerer, editor-in-chief and managing director at Mittelbayerische Zeitung. “Creating a deeper understanding for customer needs and quality journalism has proven to be the key success factor. With DRIVE, the partner publishers have access to a joint data pool and tailored analytics. They share learnings and benchmarks in order to accelerate success. The DRIVE team concept beats even the best in-house approaches.”
How it started
To that end, DRIVE founders saw the need for German publishers to do something different if they were going to be successful at he digital subscriptions game. And the clock was ticking.
Discussion about the initiative started in late 2019, with the first few publishers — the first being Mittelbayerische Zeitung — joining in the first quarter of 2020. During the pilot phase, the partnership was free while the founders proved the idea that subscription results would be better as a team than as individual media companies. Subsequently, a membership model was developed and grew to 10 publishers, with hopes to grow to 15 by the end of this year.
“When we started DRIVE in the summer of 2020, Mittelbayerische had already built a five-digit number of digital subscriptions,” Sauerer said. “Thanks to DRIVE, we increased this number by more than 20%. With the great project community, we are now preparing for the next big strategic leap: introducing personalised offerings to serve individual customer profiles and preferences. We are convinced that personalisation is the key to secure the future of newspaper publishing.”
Mayer and his data analytics team are the core of DRIVE. Early on, they came to the publishers with the infrastructure in place, earning trust among the growing number of members.
“The real magic for us was how those publishers were working together,” he said. “We completely and openly share data within DRIVE. Within GDPR, everything is transparent. So one magic is that those publications work so openly together. The other magic is it really worked to say, ‘Together, we can gain more speed than anything we can do individually.’ It could’ve gone the other way but after one-and-a-half years, we are now faster. That it has worked has mainly to do with the data scientists working hand in hand with the newsrooms, the trust, and the people and how they work.”
There is no doubt some industries and companies profited from the pandemic, and to an extent this was true for DRIVE. New media teams had attention to give to such a project. In addition, the entire operation could be done virtually, with only one in-person meeting in 18 months.
“When we first sat together, we were driven by the idea that the publishers needed to go digital and needed to have digital subscriptions,” Lafrenz said. “And the earlier the better. It was before the pandemic so we didn’t know how well the digitisation would go.”
The team predicted news media companies needed to make this change within the next five years. Yet for mid-sized publications, investments in data and data intelligence were out of reach.
“If we don’t cooperate, we will all fail together,” Lafrenz said. “We had this idea that was not just another project or another business model or something. It’s a question of to survive or not.”
What nobody in the early days of DRIVE knew is that that the world was entering into a pandemic and that Big Tech and media were entering a new reality.
“It is time to collaborate,” Ellers said. “The competition is no longer about single publishers. We are facing the big challenge from the platforms, and we can prove with DRIVE that teaming up, being open, sharing knowledge, sharing data, this really produces perfect results. And we don’t need to rely on platforms for that. We can go our own way. And this is a very encouraging message to newspaper publishing around the world.”
Lafrenz has spoken to news companies in the UK and the United States and believes DRIVE is adaptable to any country or region of the world, assuming the groups are of similar size and regions. Data, of course, is language agnostic.
The trifecta: Data, trust, transparency
Mayer emphasised that publishers must own their own data. Fancy tools are not enough.
“You need to get your hands dirty, collect your own data on your own, have it under your control, and then start analysing and building up,” Mayer said. “You need to strongly integrate data people into the newsroom and into the organisation.”
Having the data scientists in the room — via Zoom or in person — is key to DRIVE’s success: “I suggest every newsroom put the data people right into the newsroom and have them be a part of every discussion,” Mayer said. “What works really well is to get them all in the boat. And then in the discussion, get the different opinions and aspects and angles and develop the ideas and analysis together.”
Teams need to be fluent in both aspects [product and data], and “this is really where the magic happens,” he said — data people who understand the processes, the business model, and the product.
Trust and transparency are the other side of the magic coin.
“Mainly it has to do in a common understanding that they are not real competitors,” Mayer said. “The competition is somewhere else … Google, Facebook, YouTube, Spotify, Netflix, etc. When you are teaming up, you can really do beautiful things in getting each of your products better.”
The next step is personalisation, Ellers said: “That’s the big change we are confronted with. We are now in a very good situation. We are all convinced that in a digital era, where young people are used to individual portfolios of Netflix, Spotify, and YouTube, newspapers can’t stay at the point where we say one size fits all, regardless if you are a 20-year-old just testing our digital subscriptions or an 85-year-old grandma. We can’t give you the same thing. This is no longer feasible. This will be the real industry change. If we can achieve that and realise that concept, things will really turn around.”
As DRIVE’s founders gained international attention and fielded questions from curious news media companies, it became obvious “we were behind something big here,” Ellers said.
Lafrenz agreed: “In the battles of the past, publishers have fought against each other. We should stick together.”
In that vein, the team promises insights to be shared with the INMA community. Stay tuned!