A year and a half ago, the Helsingin Sanomat team realised we were going to die with our subscribers if we didn’t change. Our subscriber base had aged three years in just two years. The digital subscriptions were sold primarily to older generations as they were moving their print reading habits to digital. But we were not getting any new subscribers. We had to change!

The soft paywall model did not work for the younger audience. The younger audience was already engaging with our content. In fact, this audience was reading it more than the older generations. Younger readers felt it was stupid to pay because it was so easy to bypass the paywall with incognito mode, social media, and other means. They would only pay if they could not get to the content without paying.

Content noted as diamond articles gave reason for readers to subscribe.
Content noted as diamond articles gave reason for readers to subscribe.

So, our paywall model was flawed, but there was a real opportunity to attract younger subscribers. Thanks to Spotify and Netflix, those under 30 years old have had an attitude shift about paying for high-quality content. In our studies, this also applies to journalistic content.

To create a reason for this younger audience to pay, we introduced hard paywall articles, which we called diamond articles. These articles are hand-picked, unique, and often take a long time to form — just like diamonds. We use the diamond emoji in social media to mark all the hard paywall stories and a diamond logo in our stories to mark the best of our content.

Standard news stories are not diamond articles, because reliable news is also available for free. What consumers are willing to pay for are mainly feature-like articles that dive deep into a topic. For example, our well-being articles are primarily science- and expert-based, uncompromising of journalistic principles, just like in the traditional news media content.

We are now building the Helsingin Sanomat brand to be a top brand in well-being, science, culture, and society, because these topics convert well into paying customers and they are also story themes we are already good at producing.

Actually, our print subscribers already knew we had all of this, but in the digital space, they were not easy to notice.

We sponsor the diamond articles in social media to prove, time and time again, how great the content is to which subscribers have access. Our content marketing manager makes the diamond articles appear as attractive as possible in social media, in close cooperation with the journalists.

At the launch, we created social media campaigns explaining how much effort is put into a diamond story, featuring our own journalists. 

The diamond branding of the hard paywall articles worked well. Soon our readers were explaining to each other why it is OK that a particular story is a behind a hard paywall.

We needed brand marketing to support the brand perception change. And because we had such a big change on our minds, it was really a relaunch of the brand. We could not trust targeted media or irregular visits to our own Web site on their own to make the big change. We also needed the mass media. The brand marketing needed to be boldly different to make a difference in perception.

We analysed the brand name we should use and concluded from a survey we should do the advertising with our shortened name, HS. It was considered more modern and more digital than the long version, Helsingin Sanomat.

Even though this may seem like a small change, it is a big step — Helsingin Sanomat had never used HS in brand marketing before. We invited artists to make their version of our HS logo and published them as a poster campaign.

We needed memorable films to change the pre-existing perception. Because it would not work if we tried to please everyone equally, we consciously worked with our advertising agency (TBWA) to create messaging that appealed to the younger audience even though they were going to be shown in mass marketing.

To reduce risks of alienating older subscribers, we tested the concepts with all age groups before filming them and confirmed they would not risk our older audience. Results confirmed the campaign worked exceptionally well with the younger age groups as well.

Our path to change has been filled with research and analytics. As a media company, we are spoiled with easy access to consumer data. We get 1,000 answers to a quantitative study on our site in a few hours, without even bothering our visitors. We get massive amounts of data on how different segments consume different kinds of content. We can do a/b/c testing on different versions at any time. We have no excuses for not trying, not testing, not studying.

And we have no excuse for not boldly going for big changes — with the data backing us up.