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May 10, 2017, 8:30 a.m.

How Germany’s Die Zeit is trying to reach a younger audience (while also putting up a paywall)

“Sometimes people think there is only one strategy: theirs. I think that is wrong. Everyone needs to look for their own solution.”

Last September, to celebrate its 20th anniversary, Zeit Online — the digital presence of Die Zeit, the weekly German newspaper — held Z2X, a two-day ideas festival in Berlin for people in their 20s.

People had to apply to attend, and Zeit Online received more than 10,000 applications for just 600 spots, Zeit Online CEO Christian Röpke said in a presentation at the WAN-IFRA Digital Media Europe conference in Copenhagen last month. Based on the success of the original festival, Zeit Online put on smaller events last month in cities around Germany, and it plans to hold another iteration of Z2X this fall.

The festivals have been part of a concerted effort for Zeit Online to reach a younger audience — and it appears to be working. Thirty-five percent of Zeit Online’s audience is 29 or younger, Röpke said, a number higher than many of its German competitors.

Zeit publishes Zeit Campus, a student-oriented magazine and website, and Ze.tt, a viral BuzzFeed-like site. With Zeit Campus, it publishes an orientation guide for students entering university — they’re able to take a quiz to help them determine things such as what school to attend and what subject to study. This summer, Zeit plans to launch a guide for recent graduates to help them figure out their career path. Similarly, Ze.tt is scheduled to put on a career fair of sorts for recent graduates.

“We’re not doing so badly in attracting young readers to the brand, and we’re then able to market our brand and our products to them through their whole lifecycle hopefully,” Röpke told me at the conference.

In addition to discussing Die Zeit’s plans to reach a younger audience, we also talked about Zeit Online’s recently introduced digital subscription plan. The site introduced its Z+ paywall structure in March, which brought the company’s print and digital operations closer together. Here’s a lightly edited and condensed transcript of our conversation the day after his presentation.

Joseph Lichterman: Thirty-five percent of Zeit Online’s traffic is from people under 30. That seems like a lot, and I’m curious how you’ve managed that.

Christian Röpke: It’s been a whole team effort over the past few years, and it has various factors to it. One, of course, is what the editorial team of Zeit Online have done in the past — especially in the last year when we started Zeit Campus Online, did the Z2X Festival, and produced a lot of content specifically targeted to young readerships.

We’ve done that in the past, but we’ve concentrated our efforts editorially especially in the past 12 to 18 months. What I also showed yesterday was the fact that we have Germany’s biggest offering of orientation for people coming out of school and asking themselves: What are my strengths, what should I study, where I should study, and why should I go to certain universities? We have hundreds of thousands of potential students doing that every year. We know that from registrations, because when they do the test, if they want to save the test for future use, they have to register. We know very well how many are doing the test. It’s not the same person doing it 300 times a year, but rather it’s 300,000 people doing it.

Lichterman: That’s also why, I imagine, you’re holding the recruiting event this summer.

Röpke: That is something we’re doing specifically with the website Ze.tt, which is the millennial website that we founded two years ago. We asked ourselves: What can this website do in relationship with users — and of course the question of monetization. Ze.tt is very strong in sponsored posts; also display advertising, but very strong in sponsored posts. We thought of a recruiting event, especially for people looking for technical jobs and companies looking for technical people. Instead of speed dating between companies and applicants, we’re giving them escape games, gamification, and thus having applicants and companies coming together in that field. That’ll be something to great to try out. We’re trying it in Berlin in May. We’ve got a couple of sponsors and we’re eager to see how that works. And if that works, we’ll do it a few times a year.

People are signing up on the website to join and then we’re bringing companies and applicants together in an old factory in Berlin. It’s a very cool location doing fun stuff, and then seeing if they get together and find each other. Of course, we need our sponsors to be happy. It’s a commercial event — that’s what it is. As opposed to Z2X, the big festival of Zeit Online, which is a more editorial-led event. But, of course, a recruiting event is a commercial event, but I think both sides know what to expect from it.

Lichterman: You mentioned also that, similar to the orientation guide, that you’re doing an online guide for recent graduates as well?

Röpke: It’s a gap that we have in our offerings. What we do is we offer a lot of orientation to people looking to study at universities, then we give them a lot of content and stuff during their university years. And, of course, we have a big news website, which is strong also in the age group between 20 and 30, but we don’t have an orientation offering of people coming out of university. That’s why we thought: Why don’t we do that?

We have strong job markets in certain niches. For example, we’re number 1 in filling academic positions in Germany. We have deep understanding of the target group, and we’re strong in orientation. So putting that together leads you to an answer that, to fill the gap, you an offer a job offering with a strong orientation part to people coming out of university, because that’s where we left them alone.

Lichterman: That’s interesting. It seems like you’re leveraging your expertise in a lot of ways, and maybe presenting it in a different way to try and breakthrough with that different readership.

Röpke: That’s what’s great about Die Zeit and the brand overall. It is such a trusted brand and it has so many different angles to it. Die Zeit is strong in print also — in the readership of young people with Zeit Campus, the magazine. It’s strong in conferences and has a job market, which most of our competitors have lost in recent years. That has given us the angle of transforming some of these businesses — not taking that away from print, but rather turning a second leg into digital. That’s given us really an angle to develop a lot of stuff with the brand Die Zeit that is difficult for other newspapers or other media outlets that don’t have that same breadth of offering that unite.

Lichterman: Obviously having a large general-interest newspaper is a significant part of the business still, but here you’re looking at specific niches.

Röpke: But Die Zeit being a weekly newspaper, we don’t have the stuff that much that a daily newspaper has to cover with the day-to-day news. That’s always left space to cater to certain target groups. We have a very strong section in the newspaper catering to academics — it’s about what’s going in the academic world, which is very important in Germany. We have a great academic readership, and we’ve had that for years in print. We now have it in digital as well. That I think is a great strength. We’re not the typical general newspaper.

Lichterman: It seems also that you’re able to share lessons and best practices from Zeit, Zeit Online, Zeit Campus, and Ze.tt as well.

Röpke: We’re a medium-sized company, so that means work very closely with each other. It’s not like we’re some huge conglomerate of a media company. Sometimes, of course, we have a problem with scalability compared to big media companies, but I think the underlying strength is more important. We have a strong team spirit, we have a strong commitment to each other, we work closely with each other across online and print from editorial to commercial. We have a great trust in each other. But, of course, when I say that, we have a great understanding of how independent journalism has to be from commercial. Nevertheless, it’s a great exchange of learnings and ideas from all these different angles of the company.

Lichterman: When you’re looking toward that younger audience, I imagine it’s helpful having both Zeit Campus and Ze.tt, which are appealing to I’m sure much the same audience, just in different capacities.

Röpke: They’re appealing to very much the same audiences, but there’s not 100 percent overlap. Ze.tt is louder. Zeit Campus very much focuses around university and orientation as a student when you’re at university and topics like that. Ze.tt has many different angles to it, many different topics that it covers. It’s not 100 percent overlap, but it’s a similar readership, and that’s why it’s important that they also offer different stuff. If you’ve taken a look at Ze.tt, it’s very visual, there’s a lot of video. They sometimes have a very emotional, personal touch to stories which I like very much.

Lichterman: You mentioned this in your talk — even though 35 percent of readers are under 30, they aren’t as likely to subscribe as older readers.

Röpke: Judging from the numbers we have so far, now our digital subscription offering in the past has been Die Zeit as an app or an epaper — it’s been very close to the newspaper itself. And, yes, the newspaper readership is older than the online readership. So the question, and I don’t have data on this yet, is how is that evolving now that Zeit Online and Die Zeit have come closer together in a paid product with Die Zeit articles being on Zeit Online now and the question is how much do people, also young people, value convenience, being able to browse the site without any stops and challenges without subscribing. That’s something we’ll look into.

It’s not that young people aren’t subscribing — we have a great student readership and there’s also a special student offering that is going very well. But of course, students have less money than adults and people that are working or older. I think it’s only natural that they are not as likely to subscribe at a time when their budget is tighter.

Lichterman: We see this in the U.S. — The New York Times, for example, just launched on Snapchat Discover. It’s aimed at a younger audience that might not be inclined to subscribe right away, but they’re trying to build that brand affinity.

Röpke: That’s what’s so important about Zeit Online, Ze.tt, and all our activities. We need to be a strong anchor in the young readership even at a time when they’re unlikely to subscribe, but attracting them to the brand. Die Zeit has a great brand awareness in any age group. It’s well known in Germany, like The New York Times in the U.S., but it’s still important to have people come on to our website reading Zeit Online even at a time when they’re not likely to subscribe to a print product or a curated product, even digitally, because they’re more in a browsing mode or more in Facebook where they’re getting stuff in their stream. That’s what we’re trying. We’re not doing so badly in attracting young readers to the brand, and we’re then able to market our brand and our products to them through their whole lifecycle hopefully.

Lichterman: I’m sure you’re ultimately hoping to get those people to subscribe — but taking a step back, I’m curious also about the new digital subscription program. I know it’s only a few weeks old at this point.

Röpke: It’s very fresh. We’re very happy that we were able to launch it as it did without any glitches or anything, and it was well taken on by our readers. We staffed up our customer support and we were waiting when we pushed the button to say that we were giving new content onto the website that we didn’t have before, but, nevertheless, it’s content behind a paywall or a registration wall. We thought: Okay, let’s wait and see what happens. We did a frequently asked questions questionnaire and staffed up, but nothing much happened. People understood what we did.

They also understood what our editorial department taught them — that this was additional content that you can read when registering to a certain amount, and please accept that some of it is limited to subscribers, and reading a certain amount of registration-subjected articles also means that you will have to subscribe at some point. Please understand that this is the way we have to go, and please also understand that a lot of it is additional content. That has worked really well. People have understood that, and we have a great number of registrations, showing that people are willing to register and to identify themselves to us before using the content.

A lot of other metered walls work in a way that people consume content and then are being asked to register or subscribe after a certain amount of articles. We ask them to register first. Of course, you do a lot of modeling around it and a lot of analysis and trials, but you never really know what is going to happen. We were relieved and pleased to see that this has proved no big barrier, at least in the first few weeks. I don’t have enough data points to share specifics publicly because it’s still very early days, but early numbers point to the the fact that we can be slightly optimistic about it.

Lichterman: Was there a concern that forcing users to register would hurt reach? How do you balance that?

Röpke: A lot of the income that we have on Zeit Online is still display advertising and classified advertising — job boards and so on. Those are all business models where reach is still an important factor. I don’t believe in the mantra of people saying it’s only about pay or only about reach. I think it’s always balancing out these different business models. We did not want to see the reach going down significantly — that’s why we chose the model that we did — that’s why it’s not as clearcut as a pure metering or pure freemium, but something in between — lovingly called the hybrid model by us. I think that’s giving us the chance to be really flexible. The number of articles behind the paywall, behind the registration wall, and seeing how that works and progressing with these numbers — that’s going to be really interesting.

Lichterman: I thought it was interesting that the print and online staffs are working more closely together also now. What’s that been like?

Röpke: We’ve worked very closely together in the past few years already, but the whole process of establishing a product and defining what content is behind the paywall and behind the registration wall, of course that has meant that we have had to work very closely together. There are very many stakeholders in the project. But I think we were able to work together on the one goal of establishing a product that has a chance on the market, that gives us the chance to balance out our business models. If you look at a lot of other publications where this process led to infighting and so on, we were very clever in not doing that.

Lichterman: I know it’s early, but has there been anything that’s surprised you or challenged you in terms of implementing the system, or now the that subscriber model is public?

Röpke: The one thing that I found intriguing, in the first week especially, was that a lot of the people that signed up were already known to us through other channels, such as email marketing, newsletters, or so on. That showed that we already had quite a good database. We didn’t think that a lot of people in the beginning would already be known to us, but that’s great because we’ve given these people a reason now to log on to the website, and I think we all know how valuable it is to have logged-on traffic and logged-on users. That’s an angle to it I didn’t think about. Percentagewise, now it’s shifted to more and more people being new to us in their addresses.

Lichterman: And I imagine you want to convert those registered users into subscribers.

Röpke: That’s what we’re really looking into, what other great media companies like The New York Times and The Washington Post have done in propensity models and so on — to really see how can I convert certain segments with how likely they are to convert, then targeting those people very lightly and having segments and cohorts on the website that you target differently. That’s very exciting.

Lichterman: Anything else I should know about?

Röpke: A lot of people in the market are talking about paywalls or free traffic very much from an angle from what is right and what is wrong. Sometimes people think there is only one strategy: theirs. I think that is wrong. Everyone needs to look for their own solution. My motto is always run your own race, and I think we are running our own race at Die Zeit and Zeit Online. We still have a long way to run in many aspects, but we are doing quite well in what are our strengths and what our readers like. I don’t believe in other people always telling me, my colleagues, and my team, “There’s only one way.” That’s what happens quite frequently in the space of media companies. That is wrong. We need to accept the fact that there are so many different ways to go about the transformation.

Lichterman: That’s the biggest thing I’ve learned in working for Nieman Lab and writing about this: There’s not going to be one solution that works for every publisher. Every market is going to be different.

Röpke: You need to respect everybody going about their own way. We were sometimes asked why it took us some time to go live with our model where others have been live for some time. We worked quite intensely on the right model of varying out our various interests in the company. It was good of us to do that, and it was a perfect starting point that we now started with and launched the product. We’ll take it from here.

Photo of the Z2X Festival from Zeit Online.

POSTED     May 10, 2017, 8:30 a.m.
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