It would’ve been ironic had the internet killed off this 161-year old Norwegian tech brand, but today – as a multi-platform brand – it is back on strong footing.
In an honest, frank interview, TU.no publisher CEO Jan Moberg (left) and editor: digital and innovation Svein-Erik Hole (right), tell FIPP’s Cobus Heyl why change was not without pain…nor in vain. Here’s what they did, and learnt.
TU as a media brand is 161 years old. Tell us a little bit about its history? And what the brand presents today?
Jan: TU started in 1854 as the Polytechnical Journal in Norway. It has been published ever since, and later changed its name to Technology Weekly (Teknisk Ukeblad). The brand has always been a high-trust brand and to this day ranks high among all media in Norway. It is a trusted brand, with a “if it’s published in TU it must be true” factor. In 2009 we published 44 [print] issues of the magazine. This year we are down to 18 issues. The reduced frequency is mainly due to a sharp reduction of print job ads. However, job ads are a major part of our brand genetics, which is why we recently revamped our digital job ad service.
Over the past three to five years, especially, the brand has seen a phenomenal transformation to a multi-platform brand with print, online and live (event) platforms. Tell us a about the transformation process?
Jan: I came aboard in October 2009. Times were hard and losses were substantial. The company had 62 employees (we had to reduce head count and we now operate with 20 per cent fewer people). We started by reducing costs and getting control of the financials, by getting a new financial controller on board. We simply had to get an accurate view on the situation for the company and our business.
Ironically, the digital editor was among the first to leave us back then. He was frustrated because he couldn’t get going on the old platform we had back then. He was right. We replaced our IT competence and rebuilt all: New lines in, software updates, platforms and more.
And this was a major lesson: you have to use time to clean up and replace and renew the digital foundation of your publishing business before you can move on.
Then, we hired a couple of developers/programmers. Three years ago we hired Svein-Erik as the digital editor. He immediately used his experience and clout to set us upon a digital growth path, virtually immediately.
After that, the main focus shifted to organisational. Getting our reporters and sales staff to realise that digital is future, while at the same time delivering as well as we could on the print side.
Last year we further increased our development team from two to five. And we hired a digital product director for our job ad service. We are proud of the digital development we have achieved with our relatively modest investment.
You have reduced print issues from 44 in 2009 to 18 this year, but have managed to maintain readership at around 300,000 per issue. How does the reduction in issues fit into the overall multi-platform strategy? What do you see as the role of print within your multi-platform approach?
Jan: The role of print is diminishing. No question. The main driver for this is the diminishing interest from print advertisers. The readers still have a relatively high affection towards our print issues which is why readership is stable – and actually has grown over the last few years with the last official count 320,000 readers per edition. We work on the premise that print readership might stabilise there or go into slow decline.
From a digital perspective, we have a tablet version as well, but haven’t promoted that heavily. This has to do with the fact that there is no VAT on print, but 25 per cent VAT on digital here [in Norway]. This has been a substantial hindrance to our innovation, but, then, tablet also never became what we all had hoped for either.
So our main goal has been to grown a free (no paywall) tu.no, financed by advertising revenue. We might, later on, launch subscription services based on this traffic, but we do not believe in simply converting print subs to digital subs. That is not the future.
And that is the big story of the moment: your website is up five-fold since 2010 to around 300,000 unique monthly users. This is good going for a specialist interest site in a population of around 5.2 million. What were the key drivers you implemented to achieve this growth?
Svein-Erik: There were three key points:
• Which stories we cover
• How we present them
• How we distribute them
We use big data as a tool to predict the readers’ needs – like search trends and user behaviour. In that way we ensure more relevance in our editorial planning. We have replaced photographs of business leaders with graphics, video and interactive elements – this gives a more dynamic site, and attracts a broader readership.
Then the distribution is vital: We don’t expect all potential readers to come to us, we try to find them where they are at any time, and most of them are more frequently on Facebook or Twitter than on tu.no. Our front editors use a “publishing wheel”, which includes twelve different places to post a new story to, including several social media platforms and a couple of editorial partners. And we’re quite good at SEO – Google remains our single largest referrer.
Also of interest, every week half of our traffic comes from our archive – long tail is vital in the digital economy.
Jan: Also, we were lucky enough to have acquired a pure-play digital channel serving the segment of IT/tech last year. We believe we will grow digi.no at a fast pace as soon as we get them on our TU platform and apply the “whiz-factor” from Svein-Erik and his crew. And last year we launched a contributor network on tu.no. The contributors have professional competence within their fields and topics. This gives TU.no more knowledge and authority than our editorial staff can possibly fathom by themselves.
You have also launched events, which are great at bringing brands to life, creating opportunities for deeper engagement with your audience and advertisers, and of course as a potential revenue stream. Tells us more about your events?
Jan: Our brand is fantastic. Which is why I took this job in the first place! I viewed TU as one of the most underdeveloped brands in the business. A real ‘secret service’ compared to its potential and standing. However, it is hard to succeed in events without the right people and competence. We hired a sales executive from IDG here in Norway. We set him up with our marketing/sub guy. And it took off.
We are actively promoting our events through our own channels. We primarily recruit through tu.no. The revenue from events is mainly from sponsors. We have kept the attendance fee lower than competitors in the market. But we avoid free attendance. Having to pay for an event improves the perception/value to the participant.
Another finding is that the editors of TU are important as hosts for events. We might not be the funniest hosts, but it strengthens the brand and identity to do it ourselves. [Along with the contributors on TU.no] We will also actively recruit contributors to speak at our conferences.
Given TU.no is in Norwegian, it is safe to assume most of your traffic comes from Norway. Do you have traffic from elsewhere? Is expanding internationally – perhaps in English or other languages, and with or without local partners – part of your strategy going forward?
Svein-Erik: 15 per cent of our traffic comes from abroad. Many of them read us by using Google Translate, which proves an international interest for some of our unique content. Also, the companies we cover are recruiting internationally, which is why we have launched an English language classified job site. We are also planning an international editorial site, to present unique Norwegian technology. [As an example proving international demand for TU.no’s content] Recently we translated a video of the Norwegian army using Oculus Rift to navigate tanks into English, and this story was quoted by hundreds of large media brands worldwide – BBC, The Washington Post and Wired to mention a few. We allowed them to show 30 seconds of the video if they promised to link back to TU.no.
Linked to the above question, in today’s world you cannot operate without considering competition on a global level. Who do you look at worldwide as good examples to follow?
Svein-Erik: Norwegian news feeds in social media are full of international news. Within our niche – technology – The Verge is doing some great stuff, both editorial and commercial. Quartz and vox.com are two other recent favourites, they both attack the news with depth and smart second takes, and present the stories in a way that makes you want to stay and come back and share.
All of the growth is of course fantastic, but in the end you have to pay for it and have something in the bank at the end of it! Can you tell us a little about how you’re developing revenues? And from a revenue / P&L perspective, how are things looking for the business?
Jan: We print 130,000 copies of TU 18 times a year. The majority of our circulation goes to the technologists in Norway through a deal with our owners. Hence, the print business is funded not only by advertising, but also by bulk subscription.
However, both TU.no and our event business have to be profitable on their own. And with the reduced frequency of print – and diminishing paper-based advertising – we are aggressively growing our digital business.
2015 will be the year where digital ad revenue surpasses print revenue. And our event business was profitable in its first year of operation. Our budgets for both 2013 and 2014 had negative results pre-tax. However, I am happy to say we ended up with black numbers for both years. And make no mistake, profits are necessary to survive and the end goal is to make digital profit. The end game is digital.
What are your plans for the immediate future, and beyond that (insofar one can plan far ahead these days!)?
Svein-Erik: In respect of digital content development, we are releasing a live news platform where we will curate and feed in all relevant technology news and video streams from several sources, as well as interact with our readers. We are also close to launching a forum. [While forums have their critics] We have great belief in that, as our readers are well educated and highly engaged. In addition we are developing a new long form presentation, which includes multimedia.
Jan: We are also pressing ahead with development and digital growth. The organisation changes continuously. If you are afraid of change, don’t work in the media business! There is no security here unless you drive change. We will also look more closely at acquisitions and partnerships. We now reach [a collated audience of] 400,000 Norwegians every week. That’s 10 per cent of the reading population. We believe that’s a world record! And if we can find other relevant topics to feed this network, we will be interested. As for our international side, we will be opportunistic. Norway is strong in maritime, oil, gas, fisheries and other selected tech areas…
Many of FIPP’s members are like you: they have strong, established brands but are on a journey – with strategic multi-platform and in particular online (with mobile of course increasingly central) imperatives. What are the top five or so lessons you can share with them from your experience?
Svein-Erik: For me:
• You have to deserve the readers on a new platform; they won’t automatically be loyal online readers just because they read your paper.
• The newsroom must adapt to changes in user behaviour, which for example means more speed and earlier hours to feed the audience with news in peak hours.
• Analytic tools replace the old gut feeling – now we know what the readers appreciate.
• You will attract a lot of new readers. But you will also get new competitors.
Jan: The top lessons for me:
• Be true to your title’s genetics. They are established, true and lasting. Extending your brand is the future, but don’t mess with its DNA.
• Get your structure/platform ready for growth. There is no chance to grow digitally if you have lousy stuff.
• Hire competent people. Competence and attitude is a winning formula.
• Get the owners on board. Changing your business takes time. Be honest about what it takes: Time, investment and an occasional failure.
• Never rest. Wake up in the morning – every morning – and believe you can change the world.
• And super important: you need to produce excellent and relevant content. Continuously.
Norway is super connected as a digital society. What are some of the developing, general media trends you are seeing there?
Svein-Erik: With 4G in most of the country, mobile is growing rapidly. Also, we start to see a series of new media plays overtaking along the old ones, as technology makes it easier than ever before to start a new website. The entrepreneurs can make it work with smaller staff (and budgets) than the legacy brands.
Jan: The largest traditional publishers are now actively driving the change from paper to digital, openly stating that digital is first and most important. This of course, makes both advertisers and users lose belief in paper-based products. It is a struggling time for traditional media in the changing times. We believe the only way to embrace it is to be on the offensive and active. The old business models are gone. Forever.
Get in touch
Do you have comments or similar stories to share? Get in touch with me, Cobus Heyl.
More stories of business transformation
• The Digital Innovators’ Summit in Berlin from 21-24 March 2015 (with the main speaking programme on 23-24 March) to hear more stories about innovation and transformation first-hand.
• FIPP’s Innovation in Magazine Media 2015 World Report, which will launch at the DIS in March.