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95% subscriber growth in less than 3 years: How a news startup is driving reader revenue with its own CRM

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Denník N is a Slovak digital and print newspaper, founded in January 2015 by journalists who were earlier working for the national newspaper, Denník SME.

A reader-funded newspaper, Denník N has grown from 21,500 paid subscribers at the end of 2016 to 42,000 at present—a 95% growth—thanks in no small part to the CRM system that the editorial team developed in-house. 

The newspaper also has 280,000 registered readers now, compared to 90,000 at the end of 2016, when the CRM began development. 

Denník N’s subscribers/registered readers growth between 2015-2018. Source: Medium

We focus on metrics that matter, not clicks

Being reader-funded, the editorial team has always focused on producing journalism that drives subscriptions. The team tried out a number of tools, including Chartbeat and Google Analytics, to measure story performance vis-a-vis driving subscriptions. They realized that these tools were not suitable, as they drove the team to focus on the wrong metrics. 

We learnt that we have to be digital-first and focus on journalism that matters (not average 500-words stories every news site has). So we focus on metrics that matter, not clicks.

Filip Struhárik, Journalist, Editor and Social Media Manager at Denník N

This led the publisher to build its own set of tools to understand readers’ better. Aided by a Google Digital News Initiative (DNI) grant in November 2016, the team developed REMP (Readers’ Engagement and Monetization Platform). It is an open-source project comprising a set of free monetization tools for publishers. 

Keeping the project open-source helped Denník N improve its chances of getting funded by Google. It received further grants in 2017 and 2019. This allowed the publisher to hire more developers and continue developing REMP. Additionally, the fact that it was open-source became a selling point in the hiring process.

“The business model works”

REMP began as a paywall tool. It was used to lock the article behind a paywall, and measure conversions. Over the years, the team has added additional tools which include Mailer (manages newsletters and marketing emails), Beam (helps segment readers and send targeted messages), and Campaign (creates subscription banners and ads). 

The team has kept its focus on building tools that help drive subscriptions. It has not yet developed anything for other forms of reader revenue. This has helped them keep the development process running in time. 

The business model works so we don’t need any additional funding apart from our standard revenue. 

Lukáš Fila, CEO of Denník N’s publisher, N Press

REMP provides journalists with real-time data on how well their stories have been converting readers into subscribers. They also receive a daily email with top converting emails of the previous day.

These are discussed in the daily editorial meeting and inform future content. But this does not mean that the publisher focuses only on stories that drive subscriptions. Important stories continue to be covered.  

Screenshot of REMP2020 CRM tool Source: Engaged Journalism Accelerator

When there is a story that has many visitors but isn’t creating enough subscribers, the piece is analyzed and modified for improving conversion. For example, the heading, introduction or the number of words visible before the paywall message may be altered. REMP also allows A/B testing of headings to assess which ones are better at converting readers to subscriptions.

“People are not willing to pay for things they can read elsewhere”

The project has enabled the publisher to put more articles behind the paywall, and confidently prioritize longer form content. Over the years, Denník N has reduced the number of free articles, as well as the number of stories it publishes. 

“Our main focus is on longer stories. A lot of original added value has been our strategy from the beginning. People are not willing to pay for things they can read elsewhere,” Fila told NeimanLab in an earlier interview. In-depth articles attract the most subscribers; domestic politics and economic stories being key strengths.

The publication’s focus on longer in-depth stories can be seen in the graphic below, where the number of published articles has decreased as their length has grown over the years.

Source: Medium

Denník N continues to expand its digital services. Struhárik writes on Medium, “Since 2018 we have more readers on mobile devices than on desktop. We have launched our own podcast and we have created several newsletters. Much more readers are receiving our mobile notifications.”

The publisher has several newsletters that allow readers to receive information on topics of interest. They can also opt to receive a summary of the most important news of the day, or emergency alerts via email.

Source: Medium

The focus on reader revenue has allowed the publisher to operate independently of business or political pressure. In fact, the N in its name stands for Nezavislost, or independence, while Denník means daily newspaper. The publisher sends readers interim reports on the newspaper’s finances and plans. 

Matúš Kostolný, Denník N’s Editor-in-chief told NiemanLab, “We don’t count on advertisements or money from print, giving us an independence which is unique. I definitely talk more to our readers than I did before. I try to respond to every email or letter I receive and every discussion on Facebook. We are very transparent.”

There is no company or political group, there is nobody stepping through my door asking for nice words.

Matúš Kostolný, Editor-in-chief at Denník N

The newspaper has worked with other publishers to help them set up REMP. It plans to launch a paid-for set-up service for small publications. Publishers who are interested in setting up REMP for their newsrooms can find further details here.

The in-depth case study on REMP is available at Engaged Journalism Accelerator.