Regional German publishers share costs of data science to drive reader revenue

By Greg Piechota


Oxford, United Kingdom


Eight German regional publishers teamed up to share audience data infrastructure, analytics tools, and insights to boost reader engagement and online subscriptions.

Working with Deutsche Presse-Agentur, a cooperative national German news agency, and Schickler, a management consultancy, they hoped to overcome the common blocks for growth, such as poor understanding of readers, data kept in silos, deficits in tools, capabilities, and skills.

Meinolf Ellers of DPA told INMA in an interview that collaboration let the independent publishers enjoy benefits of scale:

  • Lower the costs through sharing data infrastructure and development, and data science team.
  • Improve quality of insights by pooling larger data sets for analysis and for training algorithms.
  • Speed up learning thanks to experiments coordinated across news sites and shared results.

Launched in spring 2020 as a pilot, the initiative called DRIVE (for Digital Revenue Initiative) grew to eight publishers by the end of last year, including Aachener Zeitung, Mittelbayerischer Verlag, and Lensing Media. DPA hopes more publishers in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland will join in 2021. 

One warehouse, many users: Christoph Mayer of Schickler presented a technical and organisational set-up of the initiative to INMA:

  1. Publishers store their first-party data on users, content, and context of visits in a common data warehouse operated by the consultant.
  2. Data from different publishers is kept separate for business and legal reasons, for example, to stay compliant with privacy laws (GDPR).
  3. Analyses though, such as dashboards, reports, or models, can be developed just once and then made available to all.
  4. A steering committee formed by the publishers, DPA and Schickler prioritises analytics roadmap — hypotheses to be tested in experiments or algorithms to be trained.
  5. The participants share the insights and benchmark ways to implement them, such as changes in workflows, during regular meet-ups, on Slack, etc.

Tailoring to segments: One of the early insights, said Christoph Mayer, was that most readers were not engaged enough with editorial content to subscribe, and publishers needed to help them form a habit first before stopping them with a paywall. Publishers chose temporal metrics, such as active days and time spent reading, to guide their analyses.

For example, they segmented readers by engagement and reviewed demand and supply for editorial contents. A closer view into behaviours led to a discovery of a clear evening peak in usage on some sites. After sharing the insights, publishers brainstormed ways to recreate such a peak on other sites or further boost it by tailoring content and distribution channels to specific segments. 

“Newspapers can no longer afford the traditional ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach when they want to attract younger audiences who are used to the personalised services of Spotify, Netflix, Amazon, or Apple,” said Meinolf Ellers. “We are convinced that the gradual shift to personalisation is a must.”

Sharing algorithms and content: 

Therefore, the next steps for the DRIVE will be development of personalisation systems, such as personalised newsletters and content offers, individualised pricing and intelligent paywalls, explained Christoph Mayer.

“Segmentation by user groups, such as a young family, a sports fan, or local decision makers, can be an intermediate step to a personalisation,” explained Meinolf Ellers.

Publishers may though take their alliance beyond data and start pooling content, too, similarly to the Matchup initiative in the United States. This would make the offerings of regional sites richer and potentially more attractive to subscribers.

Inspired? Meinolf Ellers of DPA, Christoph Mayer of Schickler, and Manfred Sauerer of Mittelbayerische Zeitung will be guest speakers at the INMA Readers First online meet-up on Wednesday, January 20, at 10 a.m. New York time (4 p.m. in Berlin). INMA members can register for free.

About Greg Piechota

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