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Danish startup Zetland spreading the love with its membership model

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Danish startup Zetland spreading the love with its membership model

A Zetland editorial meeting. Image by Daniel Hjorth, courtesy of Zetland.

Zetland has made a steady ascent since it launched in 2012 by featuring a single monthly story that was emailed to subscribers. Last March, it was relaunched as a daily news site dedicated to helping its readers make sense of the news. Today, it has a staff of 23 and thousands of paying members who also regularly pay to attend the publisher's live events.

Lea Korsgaard is the editor-in-chief of Zetland. Alongside her former colleagues from other traditional media: Jakob Moll, Halkon Mosbech and Silke Bock, Korsgaard launched Zetland with the goal of reinventing quality journalism.

Zetland’s main focus is  content, what its subscribers (or as Zetland calls them, members) want to read and what they are willing to pay for. After five years, Zetland now reaches 7,000 members (about a quarter of those are on trial membership and not yet paying), and is growing due to the digital strategy that is behind it.

Its live events, which regularly attract more than 1,000 paying members, cover politics, society and culture. In addition, Zetland also received 250,000 euros in funding from Google’s Digital News Initiative (DNI).

In this interview, Korsgaard, who will also be speaking at our upcoming Digital Media Europe conference (#DME17) in April, tells WAN-IFRA’s Angela Pontes Rodriguez how Zetland has grown its membership-only business, and why they start every day with an office singalong.

WAN-IFRA: What were some of the main reasons for creating Zetland?

Lea KorsgaardLea KorsgaardLea Korsgaard: Our mission is not to make news – it is to make sense. The deafening noise of the fast media, old and new, is making it increasingly difficult for smart people to follow what’s important. Zetland offers peace of mind to those who want to know why things are happening, and what they mean.

We are dedicated to digital journalism as a force for good. Each day we publish approximately three stories that service our members with context, perspective and solid information on some of the most important and interesting stories we think need to be told.

We agree with thousands of people out there, who know that now – perhaps more than ever – is the time to insist on the fundamentals of any democracy: That although we can disagree, we must share the same truths.

Otherwise, some of us end up on a world that’s flat. At Zetland, we know the earth isn’t flat. We are not afraid of telling complex, nuanced and ambiguous stories – because the world is complex, nuanced and ambiguous and because readers know that. I think they recognize our effort not trying to fool them into believing anything else.

Zetland is one of the most innovative start-ups in Denmark, what is the business model behind your success?

We are not only a subscription-first business, we are a subscription-only business. Or rather a membership-only business. We are ad-free, and our members pay 99 Danish Kroner (approximately 13.32 euros) a month to access Zetland’s content (audio and text articles) and to get cheap tickets to our journalistic live events.

We only spend about 4 percent of our expenses on marketing and on May, our fantastic business growth developer, so up until now our growth has relied on viral word-of-mouth effect on Facebook and some paid social media campaigns.

We also meet a great deal of our potential members in person when we’re out talking about Zetland to people who want to hear more about our mission.

We’ve visited everything from large-scale conferences to people’s living rooms. Finally, we convert members to Zetland Live, our journalistic live show that features great and important non-fiction stories onstage.   

What are some of the main differences between Zetland and other publishers?

There is, of course, lots of great people doing great work out there. So this is not to diminish anyone, but this is what we’re really good at, I think:

First, we don’t publish a story unless we can justify that people are in fact paying money for it.

Second, we see the journalistic process as a dialogue, not as a one-way communication – Zetland, in other words, is a community of members and journalists who share knowledge, ideas and perspectives and thereby enhance the product tremendously.

Third, our conversational tone-of-voice and engaging visual design. We write complicated stuff so that it’s entertaining to read.

Fourth, we always look upon what we do – and why we do it – from the member’s perspective.

Fifth, our digital team, our sales team and our newsroom work closely together and although each person is highly specialized in his or her own field everyone knows exactly why we’re on this ship together: To be of service to our members and thereby make the world more knowledgeable and thoughtful.

How has Zetland changed since its relaunch (in March 2016) to attract more digital subscribers?

We publish more stories each day. We started out with only two stories a day. We’ve also launched a listening service so that our members can now listen to (at least) one story per day. We launched an ambassador-programme (for the members who recruit new members). We’ve launched a student discount (50 percent off). We’ve made it possible for our members to share their Zetland-account with people in their homes, and we’ve developed our contribution features, so that our members are now able to more easily contribute with knowledge and ideas.

We started out with only two stories a day and now we publish more. We launched a listening service, through our members can listen to (at least) listen to one story a day and an ambassador-programme, for those who recruit new members for Zetland. Discounts for students (50% off), the possibility of sharing your Zetland account with your people and the development of contribution features, make our members easily contribute with knowledge and ideas.

On that note: We’ve been so fortunate to get 250,000 euros from Google’s Digital News Initiative, which is enabling us to develop the contribution section even further this spring – our goal is to build a commenting suite for news sites that promotes meaningful dialogue rather than bursts of opinion.

Among a bunch of other things, we’re now also in the process of reshaping our frontpage a bit to make it easier for our members to find stories they’ve missed.

In an interview with our World Editors Forum in August 2016, you told us that you had 2,600 paying members. Where does this figure stand now, and are you on track to reach your goal of having 14,500 members in two years?

We now have 7,000 members – about a quarter are on trial memberships and therefore not yet paying – strictly speaking. So we are almost halfway, but we are probably going to need 16,000 or 17,000 members next spring in order to reach break-even.

We’ve introduced a student price with a 50 percent reduction on the regular price, so that’s why we need more members in total. We really like the students, though!

Producing high quality journalism and being successful in the digital business world is proving very difficult for most publishers. What are some of the main lessons you have learned from creating and running Zetland?

In a sense, my main lesson is very simple: Love is what drives progress and change. Without genuine love for the mission, the product, the team and daily life in the newsroom, there’s no basis for innovation. (And also, small detail, no basis for living a meaningful life).

Love is what makes you and the rest of the team really care. And hey, the good news is, that journalism is essentially meaningful! We don’t have to fake it.

All you have to do as a publisher these days is to get on up on that soap box and tell your staff each and every day why we’re here: Because we empower people by bridging the gap between what they know and what they want to know.

Another main lesson: It’s a great to start out with a singalong every day in the newsroom when you’re running a digital newspaper. It’s really hard to get pissed at each other when you begin the day with a song.

Editors note: This article has been updated to make clear that Zetland was originally launched as a monthly email featuring a single story. The website as it is today was launched in March 2016.


Angela Pontes's picture

Angela Pontes


2017-02-23 14:03

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