They’ve managed to do this through intense experimentation across many points in the process, including varying the number of lines of a story a non-subscriber is shown before they get a paywall message.

“This increased trial subscriptions for the funnel in the article by 5 percent, which is really important as that is the main driver of subscriptions on the website,” said Christian Röpke, Chief Digital Officer, ZEIT Verlagsgruppe.

However, despite seeing a steady rise in subscriptions, the publisher has struggled with converting free trial users to paying subscribers and retaining them.

The company’s efforts in navigating this challenge have paid off in the past year after they recorded a 10 percent rise in engagement during the trial phase and a 12 percent uplift in the average retention rate. They now have 297,000 digital subscribers.

“The most important phase, not only for the initial payment after the trial phase but also for lifetime retention, is at the beginning of the relationship with our customers and how we seek to foster routines and commitment in that direction,” he said.

Röpke joined WAN-IFRA’s recent Digital Media Europe conference to talk about Die Zeit’s early retention strategies and the obvious and hidden levers for action.

Based in Hamburg and Berlin, the ZEIT Media Group employs about 1,300 people, of which 450 are journalists. 

The brand’s revenue in 2022 was roughly € 300 million. 

Die Zeit’s subscription journey (2002-2023)

Röpke said Die Zeit witnessed an all-time subscription high in 2022 as a result of stable print subscriptions and increasing digital subscriptions. 

“We are now working on digital subscriptions as a means of further growth,” he said. 

See also: How Germany’s Zeit Online is connecting the world, one conversation at a time 

Being a weekly, Die Zeit’s monthly subscription price in print is not as high as a daily newspaper. However, the publisher also charges almost the same amount for its annual digital subscription as it does for the print at € 280. As a result, things seem to be shaping well on the revenue side.

Strong shift towards digital

For engagement and retention, the publisher is working on a subscription funnel where it’s trying to get anonymous users to sign up for a 28-day trial subscription and ultimately convert them into paying subscribers, while trying to prevent churn. 

Röpke shared three indicators from Die Zeit of the shift from a print to digital mediascape:

Print and digital cancellations are on exactly the same level in absolute numbers. 
However, the newly converted fully paid digital subscriptions are more in number than newly converted fully paid print subscriptions. While there are more cancellations for print, there are more newly converted digital subscriptions than cancellations, so the digital side is set for further growth and the mix will shift further to digital subscriptions.
The payment quota after the trial phase is better for digital subscriptions, especially the ones that are being generated directly on the website. Payment quota refers to the percentage of the four-week trial subscribers converting to paying subscribers.

Conversion optimisation experimentation

The company has implemented a stringent A/B testing culture during the past three years to gauge how it can get more people to buy the trial subscription. 

Röpke shared two examples to elaborate on that.

About a third of all digital subscriptions on the website come from a footer box within the article page. By playing around with the positioning, layout and wording of this footer box, they saw a 23 percent increase in trial subscriptions. 

Another experiment that proved to be a game-changer was tinkering with the number of lines of free content a user was shown before hitting the paywall. They started off with testing three, 15, nine, and 11 lines, before zeroing in on seven as the magic number. 

“This increased trial subscriptions for the funnel in the article by 5 percent, which is really important as that is the main driver of subscriptions on the website,” he said.

This rigorous testing resulted in an 8 percent increase in conversions in 2022. 

One of the most important things for Die Zeit in the past few years has been developing an engagement score. This score, developed in the first 28 days of the trial subscription, helped in determining a high correlation between the trend of the score and what happens with the payment quarter, when people become paying subscribers.

“This engagement score was crucial for us. It showed us the possibility of looking into the future in terms of rise or dip in subscription trends. While cancellations are on the rise due to the increasing stock of digital subscriptions, the churn rate has been stable with only a limited increase in January 2023,” Röpke said.

Röpke quoted an FT Strategies research to point out that up to a third of all active churn happens within the first 24 hours of subscription. “That means the first day new subscribers are at a particularly high risk of leaving. That needs to be always kept in mind,” he said. 

Project: First Day Subscription

The company launched First Day Subscription in 2021, to leverage the first day experience of subscribers at Zeit Online. The challenges from that project are listed thus:

Data showed a big drop in engagement levels after the first day of subscription. “Through quantitative analysis, we found that from day two, engagement levels off and leads to lower retention in the trial phase,” he said.
Subscribers lacked orientation on the first day. The brand started an intensive user research phase and discovered a key problem in the onboarding process – most subscribers were highly motivated to explore their subscription on the first day, but the high number of articles and options overwhelmed and frustrated them, Röpke said. 

The objective of this project was to make better use of the high first day engagement levels to encourage new paying users to retain their subscription even after the trial phase ended. Here are the solutions that Die Zeit’s team came up with to tackle the aforementioned challenges:

Footer guide: New subscribers found a first-step-guide (in the form of the footer box) in the first article they opened after subscribing. The guide featured “5 tips to get started” with the new subscription and ensured a positive start.

Personalised subscription start: By asking subscribers about their personal preferences directly after they complete their order the company was able to recommend its apps and newsletters relevant to the user. “This gave rise to orientation, triggering engagement,” Röpke said. 

Other solutions:

Confirmation email: Once a sale is complete, the subscriber receives a confirmation email with suggestions from the publisher helping them to make the most of their subscription.

Zeit Online app: “Our mobile app is a strong driver of engagement and retention. We try to get people to download the Zeit Online app during the trial phase,” he said. 

In an attempt to convert more subscribers, the company recently redesigned the app. Paying users can now find a section dedicated to subscriptions in a bid to better orient them. This area features all of subscriber-only articles, games and other sections. The redesigned app also sports an improved profile and personal section. 

The results of this project spoke for itself. 

Engagement increased by 10 percent during the trial phase.
The company saw an uplift of 12 percent on the average retention rate, from trial to paying subscriber.
The retention uplift translated to 7,000 new subscribers in the first year of the project.

Takeaways from the retention journey

Commitment of commercial and editorial teams for paid content is essential. “We have a clearly marked out strategy of subscription first, not subscription only,” he said. 
Technical freedom and flexibility for product management are crucial. 
Interdisciplinary teams are at the heart of a lot of what Die Zeit does, but only when necessary. 
The culture of testing and making data actionable has proved to be priceless for the publisher. 

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