Expressen shares strategy of delayed success with its paywall

By Grzegorz Piechota

INMA

Oxford, United Kingdom

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Since the launch of the paywall in December 2018, Sweden’s Expressen has grown from 0 to 90,000 digital subscribers. But why did it wait so long with this launch?

Last week, Sweden’s Expressen won the INMA Global Media Award for the Best New Digital Subscription Initiative and the Best in Show for Europe. In the award application, it described a number of success factors for the launch:

  • Cross-functional team: Representatives from editorial, analytics, tech, and commercial departments worked closely together before and after the launch of the paywall. The project was led by Johanna Odlander, head of Expressen Premium.
  • Ambitious yet realistic goals: Based on the industry benchmarks and proven models of popular newspapers such as Bild in Germany and Dagbladet and VG in Norway, the team set goals and milestones and used data to make smarter decisions and prioritise efforts.
  • Data democratisation and a bit of Slack policing: The data was made available to everyone in the newsroom and other departments in the form of dashboards and explanatory reports. Desks got their weekly conversion targets. Slack bot reminded managers every hour of how they were performing toward the target.
  • Flexible paywall: Expressen chose a freemium model, in which 95% articles were free to all and 5% were exclusive to subscribers. An internally built tool let marketers experiment with unique paywall settings and messaging for each article or a campaign.
  • Premium content: While any high-quality article could be locked, a dedicated team of premium editors produced a daily set of differentiated, worth-paying-for articles — investigative stories, profiles, guides, and advice columns. 

While award-winning, successful and inspiring, the story of Expressen’s paywall begs an explanation:

  • Why did it launch as one of the last newspapers in Sweden? Sweden enjoys the second highest proportion of people paying for news in the world — in 2019, per the Oxford’s Reuters Institute, 27% of adults did pay.
  • Why did it wait 15 years to catch up with its main competitor, Aftonbladet, that launched its paywall in 2003 and over years amassed an online subscriber base of more than 250,000?

Thomas Mattsson, former editor-in-chief of Expressen from 2009 to 2019 and now senior advisor at Bonnier News, mentioned the paywall plans to the trade press back in 2014, but the project was aborted.

“Timing was not right,” Mattsson said in an interview with INMA. “Expressen was a well-known national newspaper brand winning awards for its journalism, but our market share on mobile was at the time below 20% compared to our rival Aftonbladet. This position was too weak. We needed to gain traffic and reach before trying to convert visitors to paying customers.”

Over years, Expressen has focused on mobile content and distribution, growing reach across social media and launched live video news service called Expressen TV. Its “Traffic attack” project aimed at becoming Sweden’s biggest news publisher on owned and social platforms.

By 2019, the Expressen’s market share on mobile compared to its arch-rival Aftonbladet grew to 49%. Per the company’s estimates, it reached every week 70% of the country’s 10-million-strong population. Mattsson: “We were ready.” 

Today, as many publishers across the world wander whether it’s the right time to finally launch a paywall, Mattsson offers this one piece of advice: “Do it only when you are confident… If your business and journalism is weak, then your paywall offering will be weak, too.” 

Depending on the market position, publishers might also entertain different strategies: “If you’re the market leader, you can enjoy the first mover’s advantage in digital subscriptions. But if you’re not the market leader, it might still be tempting to try and overtake your competitor [before you launch the paywall].”

The first step towards a successful online subscription project? “Recruit a good head of analytics and give her or him great responsibility,” suggests Mattsson, whose old newsroom looks like wall-papered with screens showing data. To send a clear signal internally, Mattsson offered the Head of Marketing and Analytics Josefina Rickardt the room next to his office and added her name to the masthead. 

Check out other subscription projects awarded last week by INMA: The full list of winners contains links to award applications and presentations.

Banner image courtesy of Gerd Altmann from Pixabay.

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