How German publisher Spiegel is experimenting beyond the metered paywall to drive reader revenue


The pivot to paid has many variations. German publisher Spiegel, which publishes weekly news magazine Der Spiegel, is taking an approach that’s somewhere between a paywall and a metered system. Spiegel+ instead makes approximately 100 articles available to subscribers and scatters them throughout the site. The goal: to drive subscriptions based on reader interest in individual stories, rather than risk losing readers by asking them to subscribe too fast.

Spiegel has 20 million monthly online visitors, according to German online measurement standard Arbeitsgemeinschaft Online Forschung. Spiegel Online makes the majority of its revenue — about 99 percent of it, in fact — from online advertising, according to Spiegel Online CEO Jesper Doub. But the publisher recognizes it must diversify its revenue streams to guarantee long-term sustainability. Around 30 people from across Spiegel have been assigned to creating the new reader-revenue product model.

“For the last 23 years, the ad business has been great, but if we want to take it to the next level, we must come up with the next model,” said Doub. “Our ad business is still huge, so we’re not under pressure yet and not expecting it [reader revenue] to be anything near a 50-50 split over the next few years, but we aim for two-digit percentage growth.”

Over the last two years, Spiegel made certain stories available on a pay-per-article basis. A reader could pay 39 euro cents (46 U.S. cents), for example, to read a specific article, and once they reached €5 ($5.85), they would be asked to subscribe. That model didn’t scale, but the publisher continued using it until recently to test what kinds of stories people were willing to pay for.

Last week Spiegel revealed a new subscriptions model where Spiegel+ subscribers pay €19.99 ($23.38) a month for a digital-only subscription and €24.99 ($29.23) a month for a print and digital subscription. Spiegel Online attracts a decent number of younger readers, but to encourage the habit of paying for content, it has also introduced a Spiegel+ package for people up to 30 years old. Those readers can pay €11.99 ($14.02) for a digital-only subscription and €16.99 ($19.87) for print and digital. A trial month is offered for free for digital-only subscriptions.

A digital-only subscriber will receive access to all content produced exclusively for Spiegel+, which includes a combination of approximately 50 text articles and videos, in addition to the 45 to 50 articles published weekly in Der Spiegel. Previously, the magazine articles were available digitally via a PDF, which people would download to read an online version of the magazine. They were also available via a dedicated mobile app.

Spiegel has around 400 journalists in its print and digital newsroom. Rather than choose a specific editorial team to create subscription content, all its journalists will be invited to pitch stories for it. Two people coordinate the project management of Spiegel+ and monitor its subscription conversions. Spiegel is also looking to fill a new role that focuses on distributing paid content articles on third-party platforms like Facebook.

The content that converts tends to be longer pieces of up to several thousand words. Spiegel+ will focus on these long formats, which have evergreen topics and so aren’t tied to daily news cycles, and can’t be found elsewhere, particularly in areas like politics, economics and lifestyle.

The top five highest-selling pay-per-view articles in the last two years had a mix of investigated topics: how an American tourist visiting a Berlin nightclub died, a man’s hunt for his lost treasure, whether intimacy or distance improves sexual intimacy for couples, a time-based weight-loss diet, and the Islamic world’s economic development. All of these are now available to Spiegel+ members, too.

“We have seen several publishers at local newspapers play around with metered models, and most of them ended up having 99.9 percent of visitors ending usage when they hit the paywall,” said Stefan Plöchinger, Spiegel’s head of product development. “It [the metered model] drained the traffic — they didn’t get people to jump over the hurdle to get beyond the meter. Also, the metered model seems old now: People are talking about [techniques like] dynamic pay gates. We don’t want it [paid-for content] to be too in your face. It’s important that it feels integrated into the homepage. You then sell the story, not the model, and you don’t disturb readers.”

Other formats created by big-name local journalists that generated high views on other free products, like weekly email update Spiegel Daily, have been exported to Spiegel+ formats. Harald Schmidt, German TV presenter and comedian, does a weekly video column discussing politics and other issues; Swiss journalist and presenter Jörg Kachelmann will do his popular video-based weather report for subscribers only. Radio host and poet Sophie Passmann has also been commissioned to write a weekly column for subscribers.

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