To create better engagement with its audience, Austrian publisher VOL.at found inspiration in one of the most engaging forms of media: games.

The publisher’s log-in rate was low, hovering at about 3%, Georg Burtscher, managing director of Russmedia Digital, told participants at INMA’s World Congress Brainsnack sessions on Sunday morning.

Its gamification platform rewards users with virtual currency with every interaction they have with the news brand, such as logging in, reading and sharing articles. Finding the right virtual currency strategy was crucial during project development.

Georg Burtscher, managing director of Russmedia Digital, explains the company's gamification initiative at INMA World Congress.
Georg Burtscher, managing director of Russmedia Digital, explains the company's gamification initiative at INMA World Congress.

“We tested 18 different names for the currencies during the last six months to get the best one so we can get high engagements,” he said.

This careful testing paid off. The company saw a 2672% increase in log-ins. Users have already collected a combined 2.5 million points.

Beyond news media, this system has already been successful with partners, such as Swiss grocery brand Denner, Burtscher said: “We said from day one that the technology has to work for everybody.”

After a year of initial development, creating branding and integrating the programme into partner’s interfaces takes about three months.

Companies across industries share similar goals surrounding user and audience engagement, Burtscher said: “We know we all have the same pain, but we share our solutions.”

A gamified points-earning system helps users create a habit and relationship with a brand. Habit creation is also crucial to The Wall Street Journal’s membership initiative. In rethinking the membership model, the company has found a data-driven approach that identifies metrics driving churn, said Karl Wells, general manager of membership, subscription sales, and marketing.

Karl Wells, general manager of membership, subscription sales, and marketing at The Wall Street Journal, explains how the WSJ predicts churn by calculating the number of active days a user spends with its component.
Karl Wells, general manager of membership, subscription sales, and marketing at The Wall Street Journal, explains how the WSJ predicts churn by calculating the number of active days a user spends with its component.

The number of active days a user spends with Wall Street Journal’s content is a key indicator of potential churn. Guided by its membership efforts, the company created a paywall that predicts each user’s propensity to subscribe. This shift alone has created a 5x increase in users returning to the Web site.

Wall Street Journal’s membership initiative began three years ago, when the company decided to shift from a circulation to a membership model, Wells said: “What that meant was a laser focus on the customer — a really deep understanding of the data and also customer experiences,” Wells said.

The company has seen its membership base grow from 1.8 million to 2.4 million within its three-tiered model. Wall Street Journal designed a pyramid of offerings, with student memberships at the bottom, core in the middle, and a professional option at the top to fit the needs of its audience. The team also hopes members will move up into the higher, more expensive levels of the pyramid.

“The rules of the paywall became governed by the customer,” Wells said. “As of today we’ve got more members reading The Wall Street Journal than ever before.”

Student memberships are the fastest-growing segment for the company, in terms of volume. The company connects with students, universities, and even asks professors to incorporate content into their lessons. The initiative has reduced the average age of the overall membership base, as well as created a more equal gender base, Wells said: “We kind of see students providing us the pipeline for our future growth.” 

The professional membership offering, which can cost anywhere from US$7,000-20,000 per year, has also been rapidly growing.

Overall, it is about knowing the total customer value for individual users, Wells said. This includes the value of membership, advertising, and ancillary offerings, like the wine club offered by the company.

The main lesson from this, Wells said, is that companies should recognise there are people in every membership base that are willing to pay more. To guide this growth, they must ask: “How do you create propositions and products that cater to people who want to give you more money?”