A Danish member-driven newsroom that seeks to add complexity and curiosity to the news
Within a month of Denmark’s coronavirus lockdown beginning, Zetland could see that this was going to be a tough moment for many of their members – Zetland was hearing from members about losing jobs, having their hours cut, or being unable to work. Zetland wanted to find a way to keep these members through the tough times. At the same time, they knew other members were in more fortunate positions and might want to help during this time of crisis.
So Zetland rolled out a series of pricing adjustments and doubled down on their retention efforts. They offered price flexibility to those who asked to cancel their membership, asked those who could afford to pay more to do so, and experimented with a new feature to make membership more valuable.
Why this is important
It is important to invest in retaining your members, especially during a recession. Recruiting and signing up a new member is a costly endeavor, likely more costly than giving your existing members some flexibility on payment for a little while. Focus on retaining the people who already know and like what you do.
But offering discounts or price breaks for membership is a delicate balance. If you discount it too much or message the discount poorly, you risk devaluing membership. Zetland has been careful to send the message that it’s not becoming a “pay what you want” company – instead, they want to be known as a company with a set value that is empathetic and willing to be flexible with their members.
While the coronavirus pandemic is (hopefully) an extreme example of sudden economic hardship, Zetland’s approach to keeping its members is instructive for any newsroom in a community facing economic hardship, whether caused by a virus, a natural disaster, or a market crisis.
What they did
Zetland knew that most members were facing one of two scenarios during the coronavirus pandemic: either Zetland was suddenly a luxury good for those hit hard by the recession, or they were financially stable and wanted to do their part to ensure Zetland survived.
So, starting April 15, Zetland added a new feature to their unsubscribe page: a note next to the unsubscribe button that says, essentially, “If you’ve been negatively impacted by all of this, don’t leave us for good. Tell us what your situation is, and we’ll reduce the price of membership for you.”
The page invited those who were about to unsubscribe to pay what they could instead. They informed members of the change via email. In the same email, they wrote, “If you find yourself in the lucky situation of not being hit by this pandemic, please consider paying more.”
As the coronavirus pandemic dragged on, they doubled down on their efforts to retain the members they had.
During Zetland’s 2019 ambassador campaign and during their February roadshow (a series of stops the newsroom made to five cities in Denmark to meet their members there), they heard that members wanted a better way to express the value of Zetland and what the newsroom meant to them personally. Above all, they heard that members wanted to communicate this value with Zetland’s articles.
Previously, Zetland (which has a paywall) had given ambassadors – or anyone who has recruited a new Zetland member – the opportunity to send their contacts a set of Zetland articles as a way to entice them to join. Zetland decided to try making this package of articles a perk for any new member, and moved it from being a sales pitch to a key part of the new-member onboarding welcome package. They launched this new feature on Aug. 24, 2020.
Here’s how it works: Current members and ambassadors create a “package” containing their three favorite Zetland articles (see image to the left for what this web page looks like). Then, current members are encouraged to share their personal URL link with their friends and family. When their friend or family members joins Zetland, they are then immediately presented with a personalized onboarding package from their referring contact that includes the three “must read” articles. (Note: Zetland members are still able to share individual Zetland articles with friends apart from this “onboarding package,” but the team sees this process as an intentional way to greet new members.)
The Zetland team let members choose the package of stories, rather than making suggestions, because they knew the pull of a friend recommending an article would be stronger than the pull of anything recommended by an algorithm.
As of September, 283 members had taken Zetland up on the pay-what-you-want offer on their cancellation page. These members are now, on average, paying 45DKK, or about $7 a month. This is a little more than a third of the average general price of 113DKK, or about $18 per month.
On the other hand, 233 members decided to donate an average of 65DKK extra a month, or about $10 a month. What this means is that those 233 members are largely offsetting the cost to Zetland of those 283 members who asked to pay less for their membership.
Zetland also began studying its analytics for broader retention insights around this time. They noticed that when a member stops reading Zetland at least once a week, that’s a strong indicator that they’re likely to cancel their membership. A key part of retention is building habits, so the flip side of that is also true: when someone’s habit begins to wane, you’re more likely to lose them.
The new onboarding package had just been launched at the time of publication, so MPP does not have results on that yet. Zetland plans on comparing the difference in retention in the first few weeks after someone becomes a member since implementing this new feature, as well as long-term retention a year or two into membership.
What they learned
Maintain empathy with your members beyond the initial crisis. Zetland only removed the new language next to their unsubscribe button on Aug. 18. They decided to keep it up beyond the spring to give this explicit option to folks who might be hit with financial hardship throughout the summer. Even though they’ve now removed this specific language, Zetland still allows members to pause their membership payments from 7 day and up to 90 day increments. This allows Zetland to stick with the price they’ve defined for their membership program, while letting people take breaks as they need it.
Leverage your most loyal readers and members for ideas on how to improve your membership program. The roadshow the Zetland team went on in February to speak to readers and members across five cities in Denmark allowed the team to talk to what CEO Tav Klitgaard calls the “hot onion” – the small and mighty segment of Zetland members who are the newsroom’s most loyal fans
This segment of members is largely composed of Zetland’s ambassadors, who have their own email list and Facebook group, and have opted into additional communication from the Zetland team. Conversations with the ~200 or so folks in the “hot onion” group during the roadshow planted the idea for the story package feature. After the roadshow, Zetland sent a survey to all of their members (not just the super-fans) to double check that this feature was something other members wanted. They ended up receiving 1,600 survey responses that validated what they heard in-person.
Key takeaways and cautionary notes
Keep your value proposition clear when you make changes to your payment structures and discounts. Zetland makes it clear with their members that they are a newsroom that expects members to pay a set price per month (129DKK, or about $20 USD per month.) Zetland does not want to be or want to be known as a “pay what you want” company – instead, they want to be known as a company with a set value that is empathetic and willing to be flexible with their members. This distinction is key, and Zetland is careful to emphasize this point in their marketing with members and in the language on sign-up forms on their site.
- European Journalism Centre, case study: Two months, a voluntary 30% price increase and 18,000 new paying readers: What eldiario.es did after COVID-19 struck
- Local News Initiative, report: Can Local News Outlets Ride the Wave of New COVID-19 Subscribers? ‘This Is a Moment of Reckoning’
- Membership Puzzle Project, research: Here’s how 15+ member-driven organizations are adapting membership appeals, events, and more for coronavirus
- Membership Puzzle Project, case study: How members getting members brought Zetland to sustainability