Audience Engagement Digital Publishing
4 mins read

To grow paid subscribers to 200K, Swiss publisher bets on email newsletters

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Neue Zürcher Zeitung (NZZ), a 200-year-old Swiss news publisher, is betting big on newsletters to drive paid subscriptions. It has seen considerable success with niche newsletters, achieving significantly higher than average email open rates, and has effectively used reader data to increase conversions by 80%.

Currently, NZZ has 156,000 subscribers and grew by 4% in 2018, according to Digiday. The publisher now plans to reach 200,000 subscribers by 2022 (almost 30% growth in paid readership) and newsletters are going to play a crucial role in its strategy.

That may prove to be an effective strategy because newsletters, as Mike Isaac, Technology Reporter at The New York Times, wrote in a recent piece, “Could be a more reliable means of increasing readership for major publishers whose relationships with social networks have soured.”

Media start-ups like The Skimm, a daily newsletter started by two former NBC producers, have grown from dozens of readers to millions. Axios has tapped into the newsletter market with a focus on politics and business. Other big media companies — Vox, BuzzFeed, CNN — have latched on to the trend as they seek a deeper bond with readers.

Mike Isaac, Technology Reporter at The New York Times

At present, NZZ has 21 email newsletters which comprise an equal mix of dailies and weeklies. The publisher does not intend to limit that to a certain number. Whenever required, it designs a newsletter for a group that it wants to reach out to.

For example, to connect with female readers—its readership is 65% male—NZZ recently launched a newsletter focused on them. It’s a weekly which presents stories selected by female NZZ journalists. The stories cover a wide range of topics with the journalists explaining their selections to the audience.

“Smarter, more personal news experience”

The publisher has been experimenting with creating a personalized news experience for its readers for some years now. Late last year, it launched “My NZZ,” a newsletter that curates a personalized list of articles that a reader missed during the week.

Writing for Medium, NZZ’s Head of Data, Analytics and Market Research, Markus Barmettler, stated that their goal is to “create a smarter, more personal news experience for our subscribers.”

He added, “Neue Zürcher Zeitung publishes up to 200 pieces of content every day, from video to audio, to written and visual journalism. The issue is: Our subscribers live busy lives, seeing only 8 of those pieces of content per day on average. We want to make sure they don’t miss the ones most relevant to them.”

That’s seconded by Chris Stanford, Senior Staff Editor at The New York Times. Stanford sends out the U.S. Morning Briefing to 1.6 million subscribers each morning. He says, “We’re in a very busy news period, and the amount of journalism that we produce every day can be pretty daunting, even for someone who gets paid to synthesize it.

“I think readers appreciate having someone else do a lot of the work in sorting out what’s important and highlighting what in The Times they should spend their (limited) time on.”

At NZZ, the recommendations are driven by a combination of human and machine curation. René Pfitzner, Lead Data Scientist at NZZ, wrote in an earlier piece on Medium, “Our aim at NZZ is not to provide recommendations that are optimized to increase click rates.

“Rather we have been looking into engineering a personal news stream that upholds journalistic standards. A news stream that can be best defined as a personal news companion.”

Their aim is to create a system that hits the right balance between general relevance and personal relevance. This means readers should find content that has personal meaning for them, but at the same time, do not miss out on other important news by getting trapped in a filter bubble.

The publisher may be onto something, its daily briefing newsletter has an average open rate of 30%, that beats MailChimp’s benchmark of 22% for media newsletters. The daily briefing also has nearly 250,000 readers and accounts for around 8% of the morning traffic to its site.

The propensity to subscribe scale

NZZ uses data analytics to plan its newsletter strategies. It has a dedicated team of nine working on propensity models. Registered users are scored on a ‘propensity to subscribe’ scale. Around 30 different attributes, including time spent on articles, the number of articles read per visit, frequency of visit, and the number of newsletters they have opted to receive, contribute to the score.

The team uncovered some valuable insights from a study of reader data over an eight-month period. They include the finding that registered users who signed up for two or more newsletters had the highest conversion rate.

The top newsletters had a subscriber conversion rate of less than 10%, while section newsletters like “Economics” or “Digital” with 15K and 25K subscribers worked best for converting readers—figures were not shared.

In one experiment, NZZ showed payment prompts to readers who were in the top 20% of its propensity to subscribe scale and was able to increase conversion by 80%.

Daniel Ammann, Head of Portfolio Management at NZZ told Digiday, “Newsletters are one of the most important tools to drive registrations.” The publisher also sees them as an effective conversion tool and makes them available to all registered users, of which there were 600,000 at the end of 2018.