Helsingin Sanomat in Finland built a new strategy to grow digital subscriptions and engage current subscribers by focusing on premium/paywall content and delivering new metrics to its newsroom.

Esa Mäkinen, managing editor, and Petteri Putkiranta, president, shared details of their novel approach from Helsinki, in a live in-depth INMA Webinar on Tuesday.

Helsingin Sanomat was experiencing zero growth rate in new subscriptions. The company had introduced a metered paywall to its Web site in November 2011, but it was not bringing in new subscribers.

“It was clear that the metered paywall system was not working for us,” Mäkinen said. “It was especially bad for younger readers, who had the ability to circumvent the paywall. Something had to be changed.”

Mäkinen explained, through a slideshow presentation, how Helsingin Sanomat moved from a metered strategy into a mix of free and premium strategy — with great success.

“The main result we announced a few months ago was that now have 200,000 digital subscribers — in a country with a population of 5.5 million.” To put that into perspective, if the same ratio were achieved in the United States, it would result in 10 million subscribers.

Mäkinen began by giving a brief background and perspective on the company, which was founded almost 130 years ago. Helsingin Sanomat has been the biggest news media company in Finland since 1990.

After the disappointing results of the metered paywall model, the company completely changed its strategy in 2016 — taking away the metered paywall and replacing it with a premium content strategy that utilised a strict paywall, with a mixture of free and paid content.

Helsingin Sanomat's new hybrid model of free and paid content has generated 200,000 new subscribers.
Helsingin Sanomat's new hybrid model of free and paid content has generated 200,000 new subscribers.

“The key targets we set for 2016-2017 were to retain print subscribers, and to make them digitally active,” Mäkinen said, adding that a big focus was on creating content that would specifically attract younger subscribers.

In this new model, Helsingin Sanomat offered the majority of its digital content free for everyone, on both the Web site and in the app — with a carefully chosen selection of premium articles that would be behind a subscriber-only paywall. These are called “diamond” stories.

So how did they reach 200,000 digital subscribers using this strategy?

“The most important thing we did was to bring those diamond articles in,” Mäkinen said. “We are following these articles very closely, [looking at] how many subscribers are reading them. We are looking every day at the metrics for which stories have a higher percentage rate for viewers who read it and then subscribe. Our editors use this data when assigning stories. The diamond metric also really brought our various departments together more closely.”

The metrics are shared widely and transparently throughout all the departments, from management to editorial and advertising. This is done through a digital board, as well as daily e-mails throughout the newsroom.

Mäkinen explained that looking at the data from the diamond and free content has made a tremendous impression on which stories they choose to make diamond, including photography and other accompanying visuals. The advertising department also uses these metrics to target ads, which has had a huge positive impact.

“The idea that we give everybody all the analytics they want to get. It has really been a journey of improving this. It has changed the culture in the newsroom a lot.”

The newspaper also offers a trial subscription of several weeks tracking this information as well as log-ins to the Web site and app.

Mäkinen shared the striking difference in age demographics of their users: Digital readers are very young, while subscribers are much older. Their goal is to convert more of these young readers into subscribers.

“There is a possibility to attract them because young readers are more willing to pay for content. It’s been a process to determine what kind of content appeals to the target age group of 20-45 years. After some difficulties, it became easier to figure that out.”

Mäkinen and Putkiranta shared some data, available in the presentation, on which stories they had found were most in demand and popular as subscriber-only diamond stories. These included adventure stories involving Finns and hyper-local information such as housing costs and community issues.

They explained that world and breaking-news content isn’t something they have found their readers are generally willing to pay for — but, such stories bring readers into the site and gain audience, which gives the opportunity to entice them into becoming subscribers for diamond content.

“We had a strong emphasis on planning, moving [from very short-term, daily planning] to planning for weeks and even months in advance,” Mäkinen said. “This made our work easier and better; but also, it made our audience engagement team able to perform better.”

Helsingin Sanomat just released its third quarter earnings report, which shows five months of subscriber growth in the customer base — a feat that hasn’t happened for many years in Finland.

The presentation was then turned over to invite questions from the audience.

Q: Please give a more detailed explanation of Helsingin Sanomat’s freemium/paywall hybrid model.

A: All the diamond articles are behind the paywall, in both the app and Web site. Out of 150 articles per day, three to five are diamond articles. They are constantly looking at those metrics, to determine if they should increase the number of diamond stories — which are usually the top performing stories of the day.

The Web site also has additional articles behind the paywall, to push more people into subscribing. The freemium content is basically news — front page and latest news stories. Subscribers also get access to exclusive, additional content such as magazines, e-books and a library.

Q: Is the metrics dashboard a realtime one?

A: It’s as real time as you can get with Google Analytics — about a one-hour delay.

Q: What didn’t work about the old metered model for you?

A: Mäkinen believes it was because the metered model is unfair. Readers hit the paywall on a rather random level, not necessarily on the stories they were more interested in or would be willing to pay for. The experience of the digital user was a downside. He thinks The New York Times and other major papers will eventually hit that same barrier; they just haven’t yet because the market is so much bigger than in Finland.

One important thing that Mäkinen shared was that, while this “diamond content” strategy works for Helsingin Sanomat, it might not work for other markets. What works in Finland may or may not work in Germany or the United States.

Q: Can you explain culture of your newsroom? How did you get the team to embrace change?

A: The main driver was the fact, obvious to everyone, that it was a clear they had to change, beginning in 2011 when all their content started publishing online. The level of exclusivity of the diamond strategy was appealing; and the change was grassroots and newsroom led. The journalists were allowed great freedom — having their content selected as diamond was seen as a trophy.

“Like how having your story on page one used to be the huge accomplishment, now having a diamond story is the new ‘page one,’” Mäkinen explained. He also added that the changes were gradual and not “imposed,” and so the motivation for journalists and editors is more internal than external.

The key for diamond stories is that they are totally unique content. Even though the type of stories that appeal to the reader enough to pay for may be totally different in different markets (even big city compared to small communities in the same country) — the commonality is that the most successful paid content is something unique and appealing to the local audience.

Q: What’s your monthly churn rate and what are you doing to combat it?

A: Putkiranta explained that they noticed the link between churn and acquisition about five years ago, and began addressing it then.

“We tried to create a product and brand strategy where there are no real discounts. It’s content-led, not because of a special offer — meaning that the product has a set price. Then we want to activate the subscribers to use the content even more. We do have churn that is slightly increased in recent subscribers, but it’s not yet alarming.”

Q: How do you activate subscribers to prevent churn?

A: The main way is through their method of the diamond stories; current subscribers must log in to read them. Other things used to engage them are newsletters, e-mails, and other trigger-based content. They are constantly looking at other changes to implement as well.