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April 26, 2018, 10:35 a.m.
Business Models

How do you monetize personality? Danish newsletter startup Føljeton has a few ideas

“When they wrote to us on Facebook Messenger to get the subscription, we got the feeling that this marked a big shift in their lives — going from teens to adults.”

— Intellectually curious. Ironically humorous. A fan of banter (as long as it’s politically correct). Someone whose tongue-in-cheek references come from books, sports, and music, and who would eat lunch with the rest of the team every day. And the kind of person who would print thousands of copies of a book and give it away for free.

That’s the way Søren Ipland, CEO of Danish journalism startup Føljeton, describes the voice of its daily newsletter — the core product of the three-year-old effort, coupled with an app housing the same material — to me. Føljeton relies on the revenue from its newsletter subscriptions, after shifting from a focus on card-based serialized stories to the newsletter last year. It’s striving to reach 8,500 subscribers to hit profitability and has passed the 6,000 threshold (from 5,500 last year).

The key to growth and subscriber retention, the team hopes: The newsletter’s personality. Now, they just have to figure out how to monetize it.

“We’ve done a lot of work trying to figure out exactly what the editorial profile should be,” Ipland said. “We found out that the key part of our product that people like is the introductory text every day in the newsletter.” To encourage Føljeton pride, the team asked readers to share their favorite newsletter opening of 2017. They received around 500 responses and compiled them into a complimentary book — printed on paper and everything! — sending copies to those readers who participated and to new subscribers to thank them for their support.

“When people see the book, it’s the gateway to understanding what the value of Føljeton is,” Ipland said. “Also, because it’s about a news story every day, you have a book about 2017…We wanted to get into people’s homes in a different way than the digital sphere.”

The newsletter is sent out at 12 p.m. every weekday. A monthly subscription costs 49 Danish kroner, about USD $8. It starts out with its voice-y “Dear Reader” (“Kære Læser”) section recapping and analyzing a particular current event (like the country’s leader tweeting cordially with reporters in the middle of the night). It either includes that voice-y analysis or original reporting, such as Føljeton’s Amalie Schroll Munk reporting on Greenland’s first-time voters on the country’s election day. Then it goes through the top links and photos of the past 24 hours — recent items, for instance, included new stats on colon cancer screenings, political demonstrations in Armenia, the U.S. Senate committee’s vote to approve Mike Pompeo as Secretary of State, and the death of Swedish DJ Avicii.

Nieman Lab described Føljeton’s beginnings and pivot last year:

Føljeton launched in late 2015. Its cofounders — journalists who’d worked at traditional Danish news organizations — wanted to try and create an innovative mobile-first news outlet.

When it debuted, the newsletter was an afterthought, which was mostly just used to distribute the site’s primary output — mobile-first card based stories.

Each card told took up one or two screens and contained up to 200 words, and they were created with the idea that they could be read independently or as part of the larger overall story.

Føljeton published five serialized stories per day, and each series continued as long as needed.

By May 2016, six months after launching, Føljeton decided to change course. The serialized series were expensive to produce, and it took time for writers to learn how to adapt their style to the format. The format also confused readers, said editor-in-chief Oliver Stilling, one of the site’s cofounders.

“[We were] hearing over and over again from people that they really liked Føljeton, but they were just talking about the newsletter. We were spending so much time trying to make all these serials work out, it was really a lot of work, and we could see that people didn’t really read that much in the middle of the week. We thought, okay, let’s follow through with our gut feeling and make the newsletter our main thing.”

Ipland and Stilling haven’t hit their subscription target yet, but they’re testing a few ways to get there. One involves following in the steps of the European Union.

This summer, the EU is giving 20 to 30,000 18-year-old European residents a free Interrail ticket, allowing them free access to travel across 30 countries for a month. The initiative is aimed at strengthening ties between citizens of the European Union; its website notes “it is an investment in young people: Europe needs upcoming generations to support more solidarity between countries.”

Stilling was inspired to give European 18-year-olds a free six-month subscription to Føljeton, too. Teenagers aren’t its main demographic, but the test — advertised on social media — brought 200 to 300 new subscribers to Føljeton (all on the six-month-free trial).

“We heard so many stories of young people who wouldn’t touch an old newspaper subscription even if it was free. When they wrote to us on Facebook Messenger to get the subscription, we got the feeling that this marked a big shift in their lives — going from teens to adults,” Stilling said. “Our hope is that they will convert their subscription into a paid subscription when it ends. We hope that if they don’t have that kind of money, maybe they have a parent or a grandparent who can pay for them because it is important. “

Føljeton is continuing its partnerships with an unemployment benefits agency and a Danish architects group. It’s also hoping to diversify its mail products, potentially modeled on Quartz’s Obsessions deep-dive email, or test an audio version of the newsletter’s voice. But it won’t stray too far from email.

“Facebook reach is almost entirely irrelevant to us,” Ipland said. “We’ve been able to keep growing and owning the contact with our subscribers and maintain that valuable relationship.”

Image of Føljeton’s newsletter for Tuesday, April 24 with the headline (according to Google Translate) “The low-wage rebellion”.

POSTED     April 26, 2018, 10:35 a.m.
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