Over the last couple of years there has been notable growth in the number of media startups who eschew quick clickbaity stories for longer, more thoughtful pieces. In the UK, for example, Tortoise Media has made significant waves with its unusual approach which the company’s co-founder Katie Vanneck-Smith outlined to delegates at DIS in 2019.
Yet creating extended online content that readers pay for is not a new concept. Zetland is a Danish media company that aims to take its audience behind the news via the several longform stories and the podcast it issues each day to its 20,000 subscription paying members.
As Tav Klitgaard Head of Product at Zetland and Lea Korsgaard, its Editor in Chief explain, it’s a concept that’s ideally suited to Denmark but really ought to be replicated in lots of other territories too.
At DIS 2020 the pair will outline how Zetland has morphed from startup to a key player in Danish media. Here they talk about the questions that Zetland are trying to answer and why media companies need to think in more innovative ways about their ‘product'.
What’s your personal background? What is the shape of the media in general in Denmark?
I come from a tech background. Before entering the news business, I spent ten years in software development companies, including a stint as Creative Product Owner at issuu.com, where I headed mobile reading experiences. Before that I co-founded, and was CEO of an ed-tech startup.
I was a feature writer at the national daily Politiken before I moved to New York to take a masters degree in sociology at The New School for Social Research. Moving back to Denmark I left Politiken to launch Zetland, where I am now editor-in-chief.
There’s a long and glorious tradition for high-quality partly (and fully) publicly funded news outlets in Denmark, many of whom have been using subscription models for decades. Due to the public funding (and demographic circumstances) the global crisis in quality and revenue has not hit as hard here as we see it in other territories.
However, as everywhere else, print is declining rapidly, and so is digital advertising revenue. Younger audiences in particular are finding it harder to quench their media thirst from traditional media sources.
How did you come up with the idea of Zetland? What problems were you initially trying to solve?
The founders were all working at traditional media companies, where we witnessed the threats to quality long-form journalism that resulted from the decline of print, and the consequential strategic shifts toward fast ad-funded digital articles, first hand.
Zetland’s founding vision was (and still is) to help cultivate public conversation, feeling of togetherness, and basic societal and current-affairs knowledge.
By focusing on trends and slower tectonic shifts rather than fast daily news, we wanted to encourage after thought and meta understanding rather than breaking news.
While in the process of conceptualising Zetland we witnessed the initial crowdfunding of De Correspondent in The Netherlands, and that meant a proof-of-concept, and also later a sort of proof-of-business, which we used both for recruiting staff and investors.
You started producing extended features - e shots - what was the driver that made you look beyond those to extending your output?
We made a pivot in 2015-16, where we moved from sporadic e-books distributed via partners, into daily content via our own platform.
We realised that if we wanted to follow our vision, we had to change strategy and mission. The market for e-books was at the time very limited, and publishing one title per month was just not enough to influence much neither in reader behavior nor in societal shifts.
And what is your output like now, and how do you intend to expand in the future?
We publish a few new articles everyday, usually two, sometimes one or up to four. Additionally, we publish a daily newsy podcast (The Daily-style).
Our intent is to publish enough to give all members at least one weekly aha-moment and a way to stay up-to-date on the most important current affairs.
We have no immediate intentions to publish more (on the contrary, we see the sheer production volume in traditional media as a problem in terms of the discovery experience for the user), but we constantly refine our offering, so that there is always “enough” content to consume, but never so much that it feels overwhelming.
Members should be able to “finish” Zetland in every session – or at least have a feeling that they know the finish line exists.
We want to use journalism as a way of showing solutions and hope rather than focusing on crises and problems, and we want to make journalism as engaging and fun to use as the offers from Spotify and Netflix.
We see a lot of potential in further exploring “product thinking” in news. Focusing on the consumer, working iteratively and in tightly knit smaller teams. That’s what we are currently super excited about.
You have been a subscription based company for a while now. Is it gratifying to see the rest of the media catch up with you? Why do you think you have attracted subscribers? How many do you currently have?
We’re a JAAS business (journalism-as-a-service). Part of being a service comes from the business model, but really, in our case, it’s a chicken-or-egg situation. The business model fits very well with the type of community we are aiming to build.
If more media shifting to subscriptions means more quality, more trust, more user-centric experiences, less manipulation, then yes, that is super gratifying, especially if we can be some sort of front-runner.
When we ask our members what the primary reasons for being a member are, the number one is “because I think it is important that Zetland exists; I want to support the case” way ahead of reasons that link to the way they use our product.
We are now at a point where we feel the balance between monetising time spent (attention given) and brand affinity is about right. We are very happy with our consumption numbers, but are also happy that many members are willing to pay even though they might not use us some months.
We are currently just short of 20.000 members, out of which around 13.000 are private recurring accounts (the rest are B2B, educational orgs, and household memberships).
Our main top-funnel driver is the sharing model, that we lifted from DeCorrespondent. As a paying member, you can unlock all articles to share with as many friends/followers as you wish. When those followers access the article, they’ll see you name on it, and we’ll try converting them.
Journalism works best if you can discuss the topic with someone. We encourage sharing and discussing, and the paywall model underpins this. Word of mouth has always been the cheapest and most effective recruitment engine, and we try to leverage it as much as possible.
What advice would you give to other entrepreneurs considering starting subscription based media businesses?
Make sure you understand the underlying drivers of success. Create a service, that people regard as more than just a product they use. We realised along the way that if we fail to be more than the sum of our content pieces, our business will fail.
Build the brand rigorously, and be transparent and human to build trust.
Without brand affinity, subscription is really hard. The attention war is a brutal one.
How important are the live events to your business? Are they profitable or more about brand awareness?
Originally we thought our live events would contribute substantially to our business model, and so for a long time, we really tried converting people on site, but eventually we gave up.
Now, we see our live events as part marketing (historically, they have been awesome as a place to meet people who would eventually do great things for us: brand ambassadors, investors, sources etc, and of course members), and part retention. We’re currently experimenting with co-created smaller-scale events, where members create events for other members with fairly little support from our HQ.
Do you think your model could be replicated on a global stage? Do you have plans to expand to other countries?
We are in no doubt that there is a need for a player like Zetland in many other markets across the globe. In fact, we often joke that Denmark is probably one of the worst markets to start Zetland.
That being said, we also believe that there is still a lot of potential left in Denmark, and we are not at all done here.
Needless to say, journalism doesn’t travel as easily as tech. Should we expand internationally, we’d need the right partner (please get in touch if you are such a person/group :-)).
You have said in the past that love drives progress and change? Do you still believe this is in age of antagonistic populist politics and divisive issues and figures like Trump and Brexit?
Absolutely. However, love is definitely not the only thing that drives change, but if you want to change something, love is a perfect starting point.