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How Germany's Handelsblatt Group is redefining journalism

From content to community to a holistic experience. That is the essence of the transformation of Handelsblatt, the daily business newspaper of record in Germany. It’s an interesting showcase for other publishers. Dominik Grau explains why – and how you can replicate the strategy.

Handelsblatt Group homepage ()

Messy market

The market environment of Handelsblatt (126,000 daily circulation*), and sister brand WirtschaftsWoche (120,000 weekly circulation*) is being disrupted rapidly. First, the Handelsblatt properties face the decline of print and the fragmentation of digital – just like any other publisher in Germany. Second, both Handelsblatt and their advertisers face the challenge of bringing real-time business information to an audience that’s being served with print/audio/video/online/mobile/social content from all kinds of enterprises, agencies, think tanks, consultants and myriads of others. Third, and most importantly, the Handelsblatt advertisers increasingly embrace strategies like content marketing to bring their messages to the customer directly without running ads or native components. Take Munich Re, for instance, a massive player in the country with a communications team that employs 70+ experts who are now asked by senior management to integrate and leverage content marketing broadly as part of an effort to directly serve their audience with relevant content. This effort reduces the potential content revenues and advertising dollars of Handelsblatt as their editors compete not only with the 70+ Munich Re ‘editors’ but also with the communicators of the other DAX corporations and SMBs in Germany who, too, have begun to launch similar content marketing efforts.

Introducing: The Club

So, what is Handelsblatt doing? They are turning their content into the essential ingredient of what is now the Handelsblatt Business Club. No longer are you as a reader just a subscriber. You can become a member of a ‘society’ whose purpose it is to identify, understand and utilise business information. The Club offers Handelsblatt subscribers access to digital apps, websites and other content platforms – but what’s really driving the strategy is the event setup. This is where content is turned into conversations. Because journalism says Handelsblatt CEO, Gabor Steingart, is a trifecta of ‘print, digital and live’. His COO, Ingo Rieper, who has a reputation as an intelligent deal maker and excellent financial executive is leading the business side of the new initiative. It’s obvious that the Club is turning around how Handelsblatt markets their product to readers and thus is changing how they perceive Handelsblatt as a journalistic brand. No longer are you receiving the usual weekly or daily ’subscribe now’ marketing messages, you are served a variety of e-mails, print ads, digital ads and other elements that showcase the upcoming Club events, impressions from recent evens, profiles of industry executives you will meet and topics you will be able to discuss with them. As a Club member you also get access to a research network, several special newsletters, the popular Handelsblatt HB10 app, reader trips to North America, unique collections of artworks by leading artists and access to Handelsblatt’s staff at Club-only events.

Live events and opinions

Handelsblatt’s team works with external partners to pull off an array of 200+ events in 2016, such as a banking and finance forum in August where Gabor Steingart interviewed Deutsche Bank CEO, John Cryan, live on the main stage. Cryan accepted that every word spoken would be published digitally and printed the next day. Steingart did not shy away from pointedly reflecting about the many challenges the industry faces next year; he even announced that some of the leaders present are allowed to sit in the first row while others really belong to the second row, addressing the ones he meant by name (to great cheers from the audience). And that is precisely the other ingredient of Handelsblatt’s transformation: opinions. Steingart is an opinionator. More than 500,000 readers (says Handelsblatt) subscribe to his daily newsletter ‘Morning Briefing’ where and another senior editor mix links to subscribers-only content with important news and bold opinions. Steingart influences his community. But not only Steingart, literally many editors at Handelsblatt are influencers in their business peer groups. Here’s an idea: what if Handelsblatt were to offer daily newsletters by, say, each of their top 50 journalists? Mixed with a social media strategy that includes live chats, weekly podcasts and videos focused on the same topics, offered only to Club members? 

The Cryan files

We have already heard about the John Cryan onstage interview. The Club and the events will benefit from such live opinions because they are unique. They are content that the Handelsblatt community does not get anywhere else. At our company, the Ebner Media Group, we have redefined events as a great source of a number of content pieces. Here’s how we would repackage the Cryan interview to maximise its impact (this strategy is based on the Ebner touchpoint matrix): the event video consists of the full video stream, the audio file, a written transcript of what has been said and screenshots from the video. That’s already four different content pieces. The video can be repackaged as short clips with key messages, one version without sound but with subtitles (great for social media) and another with sound (for our website and partner sites). Then we would summarise Cryan’s key messages as an infographic that’s published together with the full transcript of the video. The infographic will also be shared across all social media platforms and our newsletter. The full video and full audio (as a podcast) will be turned into premium content for paid subscribers and all content pieces combined will be packaged as ‘The Cryan Files’ on the website, mobile app and tablet version, enriched with summaries and opinions by our editors – such packages work great with subscribers who were not able to come to the event but want to read about what’s been going on as well as how this potentially impacts the industry or their business. At Ebner we typically charge €5 to €20 for such digital packages, sometimes more for the print versions. And that’s only the Cryan package! Let’s say there were 20+ more great speakers and industry experts at the forum amplified across 5+ channels – makes 100+ content pieces from just one event by simply repackaging existing content on a variety of free platforms. Finally, all of this also makes for a great print special about the event, doesn’t it? This is where content, conversations, opinions and events come together as a print-digital-live experience for Club members.

Predictive metrics

Will all of this pay off for Handelsblatt? Is it possible to predict how successful they are going to be? Let’s give it a try. At Ebner we have developed a series of predictive metrics that could serve as a potential base for such a Handelsblatt analysis. Any given website at our company tries to convert between 0.1% and 1.0% of monthly website unique users to newsletters or our lead marketing database that’s connected with our CRM system. We do this because in the last couple years we have seen that these ‘converted’ readers will become loyal customers if they are served well. The second metric is the so-called 10% threshold: we know that between 5% and 10% of newsletter subscribers will buy a product (subscription, paid download, event ticket etc) within one year of the initial conversion and more thereafter. Let’s now take the two lowest numbers, a 0.1% monthly conversion from unique to e-mail, and 5% conversion to paid after one year. Handelsblatt.com has 3,630,000 monthly unique users*: 0.1% conversion to email will get us 3,630 subscribers. Let’s assume this is the average for the next 12 months then the result will be 43,560 email addresses in year 1. If we convert 5% of them to paid we’d have 2,178 new subscribers/Club members. And that’s only the conservative model. In the Ebner best case scenario handelsblatt.com would convert 36,300 monthly email addresses; 435,600 after one year; in other words: 43,560 paid subscribers or Club members in year 1. In terms of revenues an indicator is one of the lowest monthly Handelsblatt subscription packages at €30 (or €360 annually); 43,560 new subscribers therefore equal additional income of €15,681,600 after year 1 of the new conversation strategy. As a safety measure we could say that 50% of the converted readers are already paying subscribers (at Ebner the average is approx. 10% to 20%) which still makes for an impressive €7,840,750 Just by converting the digital audience that’s already there. However, this surely is not the end of the monetization road because €30 monthly revenue can’t be the ultimate goal from a per-user perspective. With targeted offers and personalized high-priced items (art, events, tours) chances are that some users will spend more if they understand the value of such packages immediately. Let’s say 30% (or 14,520) of the newly converted readers will spend €100 per month in year 2 – that’s 14,520 x €1,200 = €17,424,000 divided by 2 (safety measure) = €8,721,000 – with the assumption that the remaining readers will continue to pay the lower €30 monthly price and thus generate a revenue of 29,040 x €360 = €10,454,400 divided by 2 = €5,227,200. Makes for a nice combined income of €8,721,000 + €5,227,200 in the second year of our new strategy, provided no reader cancels the package and factored in a very conservative 50% safety measure. It’s not very difficult to presume that a Club is a much better ecosystem to deliver on that promise than a legacy print-digital subscription package. The same metrics would work for WirtschaftsWoche and their 1,940,000 monthly digital uniques* – use this number as step 1 and then repeat the Handelsblatt conversion calculation. 

Taking it home

You can replicate this strategy at your company as well. Start with your website audience, understand what the conservative (0.1%) and best case scenario (1%) from uniques to e-mail looks like in year 1. Then get your tech team, marketing experts and digital editors together to work on a conversion system from unique user to e-mail that is tightly connected with your CRM or lead marketing database and your e-commerce or shop system.  FYI – elements such as conversion pop-ups, sign-up scrollbars, floaters and in-text modules tend to work best at most Ebner websites (visit our platform www.communicateandsell.de to learn more). Implement the conversion setup alongside a carefully planned content schedule with evergreen content modelled around high volume/low competition topics for search engines and social media (you can use the Ebner touchpoint matrix to maximise the impact of your evergreen content) and then begin to offer automated newsletters to all converted readers. 

Sisters in business

It is safe to say that at Handelsblatt the events, opinions, conversations and the Club have established a solid platform for what is to become tomorrow’s print-digital-live business media behemoth. WirtschaftsWoche subscribers now get access to their own Club, by the way, and it’s modeled on the Handelsblatt platform with similar events, key benefits and e-commerce items. While Handelsblatt serves a daily audience comprised of all levels of management, from young professionals to the C-level suites of Germany’s DAX corporations, the weekly magazine WirtschaftsWoche serves a similar audience but with more profound and in-depth features. The content strategy is directed by the editor-in-chief, Miriam Meckel, a famous German journalist and academic with years of experience as both a journalist and researcher. What Steingart, himself a former journalist, is to Handelsblatt Meckel is to WirtschaftsWoche. Both have an excellent reputation in the industry and are very popular among their audiences. 

Going global

The Handelsblatt initiative is an interesting showcase for turning journalism into a holistic experience. There are indicators that this experience will soon be delivered on a global level with the English-language Handelsblatt platform led by journalist Kevin O’Brien. The thinking, as far as I understand it, is that content about Germany and deep analysis as well as opinions about the country’s role in the global business arena are underrepresented. That’s no secret because with the exception of Economist, New York Times, Guardian and maybe four or five others no one really covers the German industry in-depth, let alone on a daily base. And surely no one does it like Handelsblatt. Thus they are in strong position to expand the Club globally in case they decide to do so.

From content to community to a holistic Club experience. We shall see whether this strategy pays off in the long run. The early indicators are promising but there’s a lot that remains to be done for the Handelsblatt team to monetize the Club consistently. But they are on to something – and they have only just begun.

(* - all circulation numbers are based on the official metrics of IVW II/2016 and AGOF 2016)

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