Rouven Leuener, Group Head of Digital Product at Neue Zürcher Zeitung on innovating in voice and personalised content

Zurich-based Neue Zürcher Zeitung is one of the oldest and most respected newspapers in Europe. Yet just five years ago it was also at crossroads, losing ground to its rivals who were innovating digitally. 

The company then turned to Rouven Leuener who, as Group Head of Digital Product, has pushed the newspaper forward creating a series of innovative new products. 

At DIS 2019 Rouven will examine those innovations in detail. Here he explains why the company chose to focus on its audio offering and why its paywalls are among the most technically advanced in the world. 

***Take advantage of our pre-agenda offer for DIS 2019, taking place on 25 to 26 March in Berlin. By signing up for DIS 2019 now, you will save €600 on final delegate rates. Sign up here*** 

How did you end up in your current role? 

During my studies I founded Studentlab Ltd., a web technology startup that is still in existence. After I went to a Swiss media house called “Ringier”, where I was responsible for all types of digital strategy. Among other things I created the biggest sports mobile community in Switzerland and was behind the development of the company’s Over the Top TV offering

After that I went to Neue Zürcher Zeitung (NZZ) with the task of reordering all digital products - in five years. In that time I have redesigned six new customer facing digital products and generated a high number of new digital subscribers . At the same time I was also studying in London for a Business Master in Digital Media Management and Innovation with Hyper Island

NZZ has pioneered an innovative text to speech system which went fully live a few weeks ago. How does it work and why did you choose to create it? 

At NZZ we are gradually becoming a user centric company, and that, in my understanding, means you cooperate with the user and take the lead from them. We listened to our audience and some of them said “I really like your content, but I would love to use your content as well in different format, for example while jogging or in the car.

And we took what our customers said very seriously and tried to find out how we could offer voice products. After a test to create audiofiles with native speakers out of articles we  soon discovered that it was too expensive to do it like this. We needed a more scaling approach so we started looking into text to speech services that take the content and convert it. We started developing the programme last year and we launched it as a beta this October and paln to roll it out to all of our users shortly

What is the business model for the product? 

The business model is based around our dynamic paywall, so you have the chance to either read or listen to an article but you will eventually hit the paywall to read/listen further. . As we are currently collecting data from the usage we are also thinking about other business models too. Maybe, for example, a listener could have 10 minutes free and then pay £1 to listen for an extra ten minutes, or something similar. 

At the end of December we will make a decision about which is the best business model for the product. Fortunately we have had lot of feedback, including lists of things users would like to change. For example, they asked for a female voice and they wanted more variation of the speed. These are a couple of the things we're going to change before new feature is ready to be rolled out to everyone. 

NZZ has also developed a personalised news app - how successful has that been? 

This was a an innovation driven project with a high uncertainty of success We developed our own system because we were not very impressed with how others did personalisation such as ‘you get more of X because you have Z’ - which to us didn't create enough value for the user and let them stuck in a filter bubble  sense. We wanted our personalisation products to be more profound  and developed the personalisation  in heavy co-creation with the users.  

Today we not only offer personalized data products to our readers but also provide a personalised newsletter based on the same technology. To be able to do that is really important for us since we do believe in systems that scale (as Text To Speech) while creating user value. The feedback on personalisation in general has been very good.We are however, careful about how much we personalise. For example, we would never personalise the digital front page. Users do want to k know which content is served to them editorially and which is personalised. Other companies offer different types of personalisation and in some instances boast very good click through rates. But click through rates is not our end goal, we rather see engaged customers whereas personalisation can help

What other innovations have you been working on? 

At the moment we have just finished our homework but we are catching up! Five years ago there the products and the underlying technology was not existent Today, we run one of the most successful dynamic paywalls and take the lead in a few other areas (such as personalisation or Text To Speech). Generally I see so many fields I would love to explore more but there's no point in us using technology (such as AI, ML, Blockchain) just for the sake of it. I believe that the technology should support a solution and fulfill a users need. It should not be the solution and then you try to find the problem it solves. That’s the wrong way round. 

***Take advantage of our pre-agenda offer for DIS 2019, taking place on 25 to 26 March in Berlin. By signing up for DIS 2019 now, you will save €600 on final delegate rates. Sign up here***