Estonia, one of Europe’s smallest nations, has been well known as a trailblazer globally when it comes to digital government. Its media organizations are leaders, too, running ahead of the other two Baltic countries of Latvia and Lithuania when it comes to people committing to paying for online content.

Since September 2019, when the Estonian Association of Media Enterprises started publishing statistics on paid digital subscriptions, the number has been steadily going up, reaching nearly 122,000 in the nation of 1.3 million at the end of November. The growth in digital subscriptions this year alone has so far exceeded 40 percent.

The secret sauce? Local media companies partly attribute this success to the fact that Estonians are a reading nation and partly to the fact that Estonian media got a head start, introducing digital subscriptions nearly 10 years ago.

“Historically, it was common to have a subscription for two dailies to your house, and then a weekly newspaper and few magazines too. I think that explains that Estonians are more ready to pay for this kind of product,” says Mari-Liis Rüütsalu, the CEO of Ekspress Grupp, one of Estonia’s biggest media houses and which has the highest number of digital subscribers. “The second reason is that we started introducing paywalls early on, and have been on a long path already.”

The forerunner

Rüütsalu responded to an interview request immediately as she believes that sharing her experience and encouraging other media outlets to introduce a paywall is beneficial for all media companies. Ekspress Grupp, which publishes a number of Estonia’s most popular newspapers and magazines and owns Delfi, the most popular online news website across the Baltics, introduced its first paywall in 2011. The beginning wasn’t very successful. “Neither technology nor other things were advanced then,” says Rüütsalu. As the forerunner, the group has learned its lessons along the way trying different approaches for their paid content products.

“At first we launched this super fancy digital newspaper, which was created every day from scratch and the reader had to download it to read it. It was quite complicated. After a few years we started thinking that we needed to make the product simpler. Subscribers wanted to read the news, they did not require a super fancy digital newspaper,” says Rüütsalu. After some internal disagreements whether to kill the digital newspaper or not, the group went on to simplify the product, expecting that this would lead to an increase in digital subscriptions. And it did.

Currently, Ekspress Grupp’s strategy is to sell content produced across its newspapers, magazines and digital media as a package instead of separate products. The fast and general news which can be read elsewhere remain free on their website. Unlike other media houses in Estonia, it also takes micro-payments for single articles, which have stable sales and give the audience more choice without driving down subscription numbers.

“Our subscribers are happier because we’re not forcing them to subscribe if they haven’t made the decision yet. If they only want to read that article, we let them. And after making some purchases there is a possibility to upsell your subscription,” explains the CEO of Ekspress Grupp.

As of October 2020, the group had 46,400 paying subscribers in Estonia. Instead of acquiring new customers, keeping existing subscribers happy so that they prolong their subscriptions has now become the main goal of Ekspress Grupp.

The Covid bump

The global pandemic gave the Estonian media the “Trump bump” – a huge increase in readership driving also digital subscriptions. However, it has not been the only factor contributing to the growth recently. For a year and a half, a populist party EKRE has been a part of Estonia’s government and has been trying “to shut the journalists’ mouth”, which has also raised readers’ interest in news, says Rüütsalu.

“It [the Covid bump] definitely helped us because we had a significant growth in digital subscriptions, although we didn’t cover the whole drop in advertising revenue with the subscriptions,” said Rüütsalu.

Estonia’s main business newspaper, Äripäev, which is owned by the Swedish Bonnier media group, also had a peak in unique visitors to its website in spring of this year. The number of their new digital subscribers was in line with, and may even have slightly exceeded, the paper’s ambitious growth plan, Äripäev’s editor-in-chief, Meelis Mandel, says.

Thanks to an aggressive approach, the paper’s revenue from subscriptions is now three times larger than advertising revenue. While advertising revenue fell by around 20 percent this year, subscription revenue increased by 15 to 20 percent. Äripäev will be more profitable this year than it was the last, said Mandel.

The success factor of Äripäev has been setting eyes on its North Star, a programme launched a bit more than two years ago with the aim to increase digital subscribers from around 10,000 at that moment to 15,000. Mandel says that this goal will be achieved in January or February next year. What’s next? “Our aim together with our site’s Russian language version is to get up to 30,000 subscribers in five to six years.” Äripäev, as a business newspaper, currently charges 25 euros per month for access to any of its content, approximately three to four times more than digital subscriptions to other local media outlets.

Lessons to be taken

There are some similarities which can be drawn from the experiences that managers at Ekspress Grupp and Äripäev shared about their success. Both Rüütsalu and Mandel stress the importance of a team consisting of employees from all departments and having everybody know how they are contributing to the common goal – growing the number of subscribers. A “nasty execution routine”, as Mandel calls it, with regular (and frequent) meetings to keep key performance indicators and follow ups up to date, is another essential element.

Then there is the content, of course. “There is no need for any whistles and bells if you don’t have the content. People don’t subscribe to you to have a fancy subscribing method or payment method,” says Rüütsalu. “Over 90 percent of Ekspress Grupp’s digital subscribers subscribe via an article. We have learned on the way that marketing campaigns do not drive subscribers.”

Mandel, too, stresses the importance of the content and notes that Äripäev’s offer to subscribers has always been that it should be useful at work. The mindset at the newspaper is that the content is made for subscribers, not advertisers. This has also changed the metrics which Äripäev follows, with the key focus being on how many subscribers log in during a week and read its content.

But there is no one playbook for all. People and their news consumption habits differ around the world and it helps to have a strategy in place which allows the media to try and fail at different approaches, which is necessary to learn what works. “You have to try different formats, different prices, different products, different subscription models. It’s a constant change,” says Rüütsalu. With so many digital subscription services, such as Netflix, Spotify, YouTube or even computer games, being common nowadays, it’s not really a unique thing to pay for an online service. “We as a media have to take our chances there.”

Mandel notes that the internet should not be cheap and believes in setting higher prices for digital subscription products. “You should be proud of the content that you make.”