Taking the Bold Step: The Spectacular Growth and Digital Acceleration Story at Funke Media Group

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As I am finishing this article, the latest news is reaching me: “Plus 300 percent! That’s how much the number of subscriptions for online content (…) has increased over the past 12 months” the colleagues from Funke proudly are announcing for the newspaper-brands from North Rhine-Westphalia. This is great news not only for Funke, but for quality journalism in general.

By Ioana Strater, New World Encounters

Dr. Ruth Betz who is in charge of digital transformation for the German local news publisher Funke Media and Berndt Röttger, who is the Deputy Editor in Chief of Hamburger Abendblatt, were able to free some time in their busy schedule and share some details about their growth and digital acceleration story, before, during and after the Corona Pandemic. On the 18.th of September, from10.00 -11.30 h CET, during the Virtual Tour Digital Revenues, they will both be presenting their best practice in developing Funke from a regional newspaper company to a national media company encompassing a portfolio of news sites, magazines, radio stations, digital publishers and daily broadsheets.

Various publishers, locations and products have developed into Funke Media Group over the past decades. More than 1,500 journalists and around 4,500 media makers work for FUNKE.

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FUNKE’s deep transformational story accelerates some two years ago when Ruth Betz joined the organization. At that time, working in silos was the norm, with print separate from product, data and sales. Ruth’s first step was to look outside the organization. Following the inspiration from a Scandinavian study tour, the internal project named “The Oslo Project” was converted to the final strategy called “User First”. A new mission was born: “We have to organize our editorial offices in such a way that we make the best possible offer to our readers – according to their interests and usage habits”. What followed was a lot of change and work at different levels: organizational, cultural, human, infrastructure and premises. New workflows and roles, in various forms, between the different newspapers and locations were implemented. Culture change was also a major piece of this, and transparency, blameless working, an ongoing learning culture became the new values. Great communication was key for a successful transformation process, all ideas and changes were discussed twice a month in workshops and published in the form of a transformation newsletter for staff. The roll-out was a success also due to the Facebook accelerator, which helped them to come together as a group. Retrospective assessment followed and then outlook for 2020.

At that point the results were considerable, as Ruth says: “First: we understand better our user’s needs and learn from the data, second: our digital business is growing – sustainable and reliable, and last but not least, our brands are strong and have a vision for the future”.

2020 marked the start of some further new projects such as article score and newsletter. They learnt that the article score helps shaping product and newsletter makes product known. Therefore, they started a newsletter unit with many interfaces. The newsletter has the customer funnel at the basis and the goals are based on the customer lifecycle.

But early 2020 Ruth, Berndt and their teams were confronted, as all of us were, with the arrival of COVID-19 and the ensuing pandemic. “As most publishers we have struggled with falling ad revenues during the crisis. On the other hand if we compare 60 days before [the onset of COVID-19] to 60 days during [the virus most severe impact on Germany] our daily new subscribers went up by 60 percent and our churn went significantly down, so we generated 160% more net new subscribers during that period,” says Ruth.

Again, the Facebook accelerator was a great help at that time. In the Accelerator, the Funke colleagues learnt to deliver stories that readers wanted and welcomed in their homes. During the corona crisis trustworthy coverage by local news about the corona impact was the most urgent, this need of the reader manifesting itself even at an existential level. So, Berndt and his team started offering regional and national “corona blogs” with live coverage of all updates and background information. They quickly understood that successful onboarding of new readers is critical, so they adapted and optimized the onboarding processes with the goal to keep the new subscribers acquired during the corona crisis and to build a long-term relationship.

As most publishers during this crisis, they were struggling with various challenges: falling advertising revenue, changing and challenging workflows and communication channels due to remote work, lacking childcare and elderly care which all impacted the employees. In addition, more and more energy needed to be poured into finding the truth behind the stories, assumptions and consequences. Last, but not least, home office allowed some reporters to fall back into old print habits, so more communication and discipline was needed.

Dr. Ruth Betz, Berndt Röttger
Dr. Ruth Betz and Berndt Röttger

At the moment, Ruth and Berndt invest a lot of time and resources into new communication formats, digital tools, re-prioritizing their tasks and choosing over-communication over under-communication. “And a little Hakuna matata also helps: It is good and rewarding if kids join videoconferences and show self-made paintings. We send the message to our employees that we understand how everybody is struggling with the new work concepts. As a company, we offer every employee that together we can find solutions for difficult situations. “One Funke” seems to be more alive than ever before” so Ruth.

Ioana Sträter. Founder of QuestiQ. Ioana Sträter is a crossindustry innovation expert, with more than 15 years expertise in media. Founder of QuestiQ, she helps organizations to tap the real potential of their growth.

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