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“The biggest barrier is us”

When Hans Nijenhuis took office as editor-in-chief of AD, his main objective was to make the newspaper more visible. “We were the newspaper that Rutte missed out during his speech at the Correspondent’s Dinner. He made jokes about all newspapers except AD.”

This could of course not happen again. It was Nijenhuis’ task to raise the profile of the newspaper with sharp front pages, sharp journalism, but also by making AD more visible in other media. The latter has been successful, he observes. The culmination was the cover of the Volkskrant Zomermagazine (the Volkskrant’s summer magazine) featuring Angela de Jong, AD’s TV reviewer. “Who could ever have conceived this?”
 
The fact that de Jong has become such an institution in a short time can almost entirely be attributed to AD.nl. It was the reason why her articles were not only read by AD subscribers, but by everybody in the Netherlands. Nijenhuis: “If you distribute properly online, you can have an enormous impact.”
 
The digital world offers unprecedented opportunities to strengthen your brand, says Nijenhuis. However, until recently it seemed to be difficult to redeem the brand value on line.  For a long time, it was believed that readers did not want to pay for digital articles and certainly not the reader of popular media such as AD.
 
In 2018, this idea was contradicted. AD.nl and Volkskrant.nl implemented a new paywall allowing for the first time to win web only subscribers. The frequent reader is asked to purchase a subscription. As a result, dozens of subscribers are pouring in every day since a few months.

“I never doubted that readers would be willing to pay for digital content, but it did surprise me how quickly it all happened.”
Bert Willemsen, Marketing Director of De Persgroep Nederland

“Who had ever thought that we would get this far?”, says Marketing Director Bert Willemsen. “I never doubted that readers would be willing to pay for digital content, but it did surprise me how quickly it all happened.”
 
Philippe Remarque, editor-in-chief of the Volkskrant is also positively surprised. “After the implementation of the paywall, I expected our readership to plummet. But it wasn’t that bad after all. The number of paying customers did however increase with 3,2 per cent compared to the previous year. So, it is possible to find new readers on the Internet who consider it worthwhile to pay for our articles.”
 
Online, you are sure of one thing. The customer always behaves differently than expected. Therefore, the aim should be to set up a system that can continuously adapt itself to the different and changing wishes of the visitors.  Do not try to imagine what the customer might want, but let data guide you, this is the creed.
 
“The hypothesis was: the quicker readers hit the paywall, the more subscriptions we would attract, but that does not seem to be the case,” says Willemsen. “For a while, the number of free articles visitors of the Volkskrant could read was restricted to five each month, but then sales decreased. Now we returned to seven.”
 
Online subscribers also seem to be much more faithful than expected. Willemsen: “Initially, we had set up a flexible model allowing subscribers to cancel at any time. In December, we started selling annual subscriptions, which was a great success too.”
 
The sale of subscriptions is a well-oiled machine. Based on their year-long experience, marketers know exactly how to convince customers to subscribe. Drawing on a large database, every potential customer is given a personalised approach that has the best prospects of success. In the years to come, the digital marketing must become equally intelligent.
 
“Now that we have attracted our first 20.000 subscribers, we can start measuring,” says Willemsen. “Which readers remain subscribers and which do not? We can make our pay barrier more intelligent, adapt it to the visitor. International examples show that this allows you to triple the inflow. For each customer you can decide for example if he gets eight, ten or twelve articles for free. Some readers simply need to be given more before they decide to subscribe than others. Now, we cannot take this into account and we limit everybody to seven free articles.”

“Nowadays, every reporter wants to be on the front page. Soon, reporters will be proud to have scored new subscribers with an article.”
Hans Nijenhuis, editor-in-chief of AD

The pay barrier also made editors think completely differently. Before, it was about posting articles online that attracted as many readers as possible. Now, it is primarily about writing articles that convince visitors to log in or to subscribe. Nijenhuis: “Nowadays, every reporter wants to be on the front page. Soon, reporters will be proud to have scored new subscribers with an article.”
 
According to Remarque, marketing and editing will increasingly blend with one another. “Distribution and subscription used to be reserved for the marketing department, but now they have become part of the editing work. Online marketing is only possible by means of the editors’ articles. We work more closely together now.”
 
Online, Darwinism rules. Those best able to adapt to the changing circumstances, have the most chances to survive. Willemsen has to be flexible, but ICT does not adjust as rapidly as Willemsen would like. “This is frustrating because there is a lot at stake. Small changes can have major consequences. Lately, we adapted a window and conversion to the subscription page immediately increased by 50 per cent.”
 
Remarque wants to accelerate things too. “The delivery of the new site, app and edition was some undertaking. We went live, but we were not ready. The ideas outpace the ability to execute them.”
 
The editing department has to do better too, thinks Nijenhuis. “We are still focusing too much on pages instead of windows. In the editors-in-chief’s WhatsApp group there is still too much talk about the newspaper and much less about online. The biggest barrier is us.”

“After the implementation of the paywall, I expected our readership to plummet. But it wasn’t that bad after all.”
Philippe Remarque, editor-in-chief of the Volkskrant

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