How Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter halved subscriber churn in 2 years

Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter knows there’s more than one way to build a paywall.

Owned by the Bonnier Group, the title started thinking seriously about its paid content strategy in 2015. Now, it has a hybrid of three different paywalls: The first, a meter where readers can access three articles a week, accounts for 10% of the title’s conversion to subscribers. The second, a premium model where two or three daily lifestyle articles are for subscribers, converts 30% of prospects.

The third, introduced in early 2017, is more dynamic: Articles that reach a certain amount of traffic in the first three to four hours go behind the paywall. According to the publisher, this accounts for 60% of its conversion rate, on average 50 articles per week hit these criteria.

“It’s logical to have our best content behind the paywall; this way we reach new audiences as well,” said Martin Jönsson, head of editorial development at the publisher. “We don’t want to lock too much, it’s important people see our content.” Jönsson was reluctant to share the thresholds the articles need to meet, partly because publishers measure traffic in different ways.

Dagens Nyheter has 165,000 digital subscribers and 163,000 print, with digital paying members overtaking print for the first time in May. Also, revenue from digital subscriptions has recently overtaken revenue from digital ads, which used to account for the majority of overall digital revenue. The title is currently converting around 2,000 subscribers a week and has grown 40% year over year.

This success is down to the company’s organization around cross-functional teams, plus a keen eye on the data and analytics, said Jönsson.

Like most publishers, particularly ones focused on driving reader revenue, dashboards and live data feeds are interspersed throughout the newsroom showing conversion rates and traffic. A commonly used metric is active time spent, identified through actions like page scrolling. The most successful articles receive between six and seven minutes active time spent, he said.

Articles that convert at a higher rate are investigative pieces, original reporting and longer-form pieces. However, Jönsson sees value in marking articles for subscribers, rather than highlighting when they’re locked.

“We focus on the value, not the paywall,” he said. “I think there’s been the wrong perspective in the business to say that content is not available or locked; this is wrong. We show where we give value, it’s more positive. For us, it’s important to attract with quality of content.”

Like other publishers, Dagens Nyheter knows that conversion is the first piece of the puzzle, keeping readers interested is trickier. Over the last two years, it’s halved its churn rate from 15% to 8%. For readers who have subscribed for over a year, churn drops to 1.2%.

The first four to six months after subscribing is a crucial window for building habits. The publisher experiments how it pushes products like its app, daily e-paper, audio articles, newsletters and push notifications. It also plans to focus on comments, an area it says can drive more loyalty.

Dagens Nyheter abandoned on-site comments when audiences flocked to Facebook a few years ago. Since the end of 2017, the publisher has been bringing comments back to its own site to better control the experience.

“The quality of comments on Facebook has been so terrible, and it’s taken so much time in moderating to make sure people don’t break the rules,” said Jönsson. “It was becoming more of a burden. The main focus has been on time spent and conversion, but [comments] will help strengthen loyalty and frequency. The most common churn driver is lack of frequency in visits.”

Facebook has faded in importance for Dagens Nyheter. The publisher has halved the number of posts it publishes to the platform, using it instead for marketing. As a result, people have started returning to commenting on-site. But it’s a slow burn; it currently receives around 25,000 comments a month from subscribers. But the goal isn’t growing the number but the quality, making it a useful place to read as well as contribute. Comments have worked especially well for subscriber publishers like The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.

The publisher is profitable and has been able to invest in its newsroom for the last two years. It has 200 journalists, 350 staff in total, and draws on central teams from Bonnier Group.

The focus on reader revenue has required an overhaul in the organization’s structure over the last two and a half years. Teams are cross-functional; there is no audience development team as everyone in the newsroom has a hand in growing the audience. Dagens Nyheter’s editor-in-chief is also responsible for reader revenue as chief marketing officer.

“For us, it’s logical not unnatural,” said Jönsson. “The way we used to run the marketing department, there was no interaction between different parts of reader revenue, between those acquiring readers, retaining them and journalists. Now we’re more integrated, it’s easier to see what works and what doesn’t.”

While it’s logical, it’s by no means an easy transformation for legacy print titles, a lot hinges on culture and leadership.

“You have to state very clearly that survival depends on how well you handle that transformation to digital subscribers,” said Jönsson. “It’s a matter of survival for us; you have to take it seriously with a clear focus.”

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