BILDplus shares lessons from its 0 to 680,000 digital subscriptions journey

By Greg Piechota


Oxford, United Kingdom


In this newsletter, I am gossiping with a German subscriptions pioneer on the first decade of BILDplus and asking a visual journalism veteran about his AI dreams.

If you have questions or suggestions, e-mail me today at or meet in person at the INMA Media Subscriptions Summit in New York in February 2024.

From 0 to 680,000 digital subscriptions: lessons from the first decade of BILDplus

Football clips, mobile bundles, chartered flights, and a slot machine — Germany’s Bild tried it all. In the end, it learned that content is king.

Bild, Europe’s largest tabloid newspaper, still sells over a million copies in print daily. Its Web site and app attract up to 6 million users daily. Both editions combined reach every second German or 38 million people monthly.

Since launching an online paywall in 2013, Bild has grown the volume of digital subscriptions every year at an average rate of 11%. With over 680,000 paying BILDplus subscribers, it’s one of the most successful news subscription products in Europe.

INMA interviewed Daniel Mussinghoff, director of premium at Axel Springer (which owns Bild), at a private meet-up of the INMA Benchmarks community. Here are the key stages of BILDplus’ development and the lessons learned along the way:

Launch with unique added value: When BILDplus launched in 2013, Bild’s strategy was to offer unique added value beyond just the news content itself. 

At launch, the product labelled BILDplus included exclusive highlight five- to eight-minute video clips of German Bundesliga football matches. 

About 30% of Bild subscribers were interested in the soccer clips, and cancellations didn’t increase when Bild later dropped the clips. (Ultimately, Bild brought them back in 2021, monetising them also with video ads.)

This taught Bild the lesson that at launch, it’s crucial to have confidence in your core news content itself as the main driver of subscriptions. “The core news content has to be strong enough on its own to convert readers to subscribers,” Mussinghoff said.

Distribution partnerships drive early growth: In the first three years after launch, distribution partnerships were critical for customer acquisition. 

Deals with mobile carriers and bundles like including BILDplus with new mobile contracts generated a lot of “free” subscribers and awareness. The carriers paid Bild licensing fees, as it helped them differentiate from their competitors.

This highlighted the importance of diversifying acquisition channels beyond just your own website and app. “Bundles and partnerships gave us access to new audiences, and accelerated the growth at an early stage,” Mussinghoff explained.

Developing the “money can’t buy” experience: In the early years, Bild experimented with exclusive experiences for subscribers.

Bild chartered planes to fly subscribers to World Cup matches, offered tickets to otherwise sold-out Rolling Stones concerts. This built engagement and loyalty, but also shaped the brand’s promise: “People were saying: ‘Only you guys are crazy enough to do that.’”

Over time, Bild productised this with ongoing sweepstakes and contests, including a slot machine readers can play every day. These don’t rely on live events, but keep delivering unique added value and engage subscribers in the low news cycle. 

“A significant number of subscribers are playing those sweepstakes on a regular basis, and they have a higher lifetime value [than subscribers who don’t play],” Mussinghoff said.

Optimising prices for lifetime value: After the initial growth phase, Bild started experimenting more with pricing. 

This included testing multiple tiers, lower and higher entry prices, and personalising prices dynamically for different reader segments. The goal was balancing subscriber volume and revenue.

Over hundreds of tests, Bild gradually moved its pricing up — from €4.99/month to €7.99/month but settled on a single tier and a 12-month-long trial for €1.99/month for new customers. 

“The key learning was that simplicity works best for us — one straightforward price point converts better than complex options,” Mussinghoff explained.

Doubling down on performance marketing: During and after the COVID pandemic, temporary discounts and promotions helped drive trials and reengage lapsed users. Bild emerges from the pandemic refocused on subscriber volume growth.

In recent years, Bild invested heavily in performance marketing, with dedicated specialists for each channel: affiliate marketing, apps, search, social, etc. 

But BILDplus subscriptions still proved hard to scale through paid marketing. “Our brand is well known in Germany, and we usually see it’s more effective for us to promote the price rather than the brand,” Mussinghoff admitted.

How to cost-effectively scale subscriber acquisition remains a challenge. Mussinghoff believes product development, creative bundling, and partnerships may help expand reach in the future.

In October, Axel Springer launched a bundle of BILDplus and Amazon Prime — a free delivery of goods bought online, video and audio streaming, and more – all for €8.99/month.

Key future opportunities: After 10 years of BILDplus, the team sees the opportunities around reinventing the product experience, personalisation, and coordination with the editorial team to adapt content to the needs of subscribers.

“We proved subscriptions can work even for mass-market, tabloid-style news brands like Bild,” Mussinghoff said. The journey so far has underscored the importance of constant experimentation and relentless optimisation based on data and insights. 

Is there any ceiling ahead? “No, we have not hit a ceiling yet, the only challenge remains balancing the Web site’s reach and subscriptions, and we are confident there is still room for growing both.”

Interested in hearing more from the paywall pioneers? Check this interview with Ted Kudinoff about the 20-years journey of Sweden’s Aftonbladet Plus.

News design veteran Mario García envisions the AI storm disrupting publishing

At the age of 76, renowned visual journalist Mario García retains a childlike curiosity for the latest revolution in journalism and publishing — Artificial Intelligence.

In his new book AI: The Next Revolution in Content Creation, to be published with Thane & Prose in the fall of 2023, García explores the rise of AI and its potential to disrupt journalism and publishing.

Garcia has spent over 50 years transforming print newspapers and news sites around the world — from Aftenposten in Norway to The Wall Street Journal in the United States. Apart from consulting, he teaches mobile-first storytelling at Columbia University in New York.

He tells an INMA interviewer that his longevity in an ever-changing industry is due to staying alert to coming storms — just like dogs can sense an impending hurricane. (García was born in Cuba and raised in Florida where hurricanes are regular.)

He felt the storm coming before the previous newspaper industry shifts to colour printing, digital and most recently the mobile revolution. “I am feeling it again,” he declares. 

Magical realism of AI: “AI blurs the line between what is real and what is magical,” he says, referring to Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez and his style. 

While hooked by the magical capabilities of generative AI tools such as ChatGPT or Midjourney, the journalist retains his devotion to realism. AI can augment but not replace human creativity. He advocates responsible adoption focused on enhancing journalism rather than just efficiency.

For example, García sees generative AI as a “great help” for visual journalism, his primary domain of interest. 

  • Infographics: Automatically generating bite-sized informational graphics such as charts and maps can save newsrooms time and money, allowing them to devote resources to interactive packages around the big news stories. 

  • Illustrations: Gen-AI can help smaller publications that lack illustrators by automatically generating images to accompany each and every story, and improve the quality. “When I started playing with Midjourney, I felt like a toddler with a box of crayons,” he admits.

  • Automated layouts: For print publications, Garcia says layout and pagination often “suck the oxygen” out of newsrooms, taking time away from producing mobile-first content. “AI is already doing a fantastic job in automating print layout,” he believes, after studying the latest content management systems by Aptoma of Norway, Eidos of Italy, and StiboDX of Denmark.

Inviting AI to the newsroom: Drawing on decades of experience ushering change in newsrooms, García says the key is respecting veteran journalists’ hard-won expertise.

“If you begin with respect, these people are going to approach change better than if you come as an agent of change and tell them: ‘You are a bunch of idiots, and everything you’re doing is wrong.’”

He advocates showing specific examples of how AI can enhance their work instead of dictating absolutes: “You better say: ‘Let me show you how you can do your job better.’ This is what my book is about. If I can learn it at 76, you can succeed, too. Just have an open mind!”

While optimistic about AI’s potential, García stresses the need for human oversight. Publishers concerned about preserving their reputation and customers’ trust should establish guidelines for using AI internally. For example, he argues AI-generated content requires clear labelling.

The newsroom of dreams: Mario García is a man of routines: a morning run, an evening glass of champagne. 

The morning run helps this frequent traveller (150+ days on the road a year) catch sun rays and adapt to a new time zone. After the run, García chats with GPT-4 daily to learn how it works. 

“I say, ‘Good morning!’ and the robot is never surprised, unlike my family members whom I wake up when I mess up the time zones and call them at 1 a.m. instead of 1 p.m.”

The journalist and the machine bonded so close, one night García wished GPT-4 “sweet dreams.” The robot objected: “I don’t dream. I am not a human.”

In the book, García told a story about how the Salvador Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida, offered to visualise the visitors’ dreams. I asked García for a description of his dream newsroom.

He imagined tomorrow’s newsrooms fully embrace AI as an ever-present assistant providing ideas, visuals, and templates on demand. I typed the answer to Dall-E, an AI image generator, and asked to visualise Mario García’s dream. 

“Oh! Oh! This is what I imagined. Wow!” he sighed.

Mario García will showcase premium user experiences on mobile and with AI at the INMA Media Subscriptions Summit in New York in February 2024. Check the agenda and join us! 

About this newsletter

Today’s newsletter is written by Grzegorz “Greg” Piechota, INMA’s researcher-in-residence and lead for the Readers First Initiative. In his letters, Greg shares original research, analysis, and best practices in growing reader revenue.

E-mail Greg at, message him on Slack, meet him at the next online Webinar or in person at the INMA Media Subscriptions Summit in New York in February 2024. 

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