Interviewer: Esther Kezia Thorpe
Can you explain what your role at Aller Media has involved over the past few years?
I’ve been in Aller Media for three and a half years. And I’ve had a large amount of different products. I’ve handled the video for some time, we have site for health related content where we added the video consultancies with doctors, and yeah, done a lot of different things in Aller.
And Aller Media itself has got quite a few different titles. It’s got both magazines and newspapers, and it’s also made a few acquisitions. So, how do you manage technology and change when you’ve got that much brand variety?
Well, it takes time, obviously to align different brands and titles. I think it started at the time when I started in Aller Media, where we basically had three different development departments, and we had different CMS’ running in different service centres, and lots of different teams.
And over time, we have merged all of our titles into one common CMS, moved everything out of the old servers into the cloud, and basically having a clear plan of where we’re going. And then starting to move titles, but it takes time. You have to be patient about this.
Norway is one of the few places in Europe where paying for news is actually growing, which is always nice. So, how has Aller Media turned itself from being one of the old school publishers – because it’s got quite a legacy – into one which is able to actually technologically take advantage of this rise in willingness to subscribe? I think you’re at the forefront of some of that work.
Yeah, definitely. And that’s a very exciting place to be as well. I mean, Dagbladet, which is our biggest title, it’s the second largest newspaper in Norway, also the biggest, the most increasing one in terms of readers at the moment as well. They started with premium content and premium subscriptions back in March 2013. So they have been doing it for quite some time.
And I think it was June or July that same year Aller Media bought Dagbladet because Aller Media have been basically been print magazines and one digital magazine site, and news aggregator called Sol, which used to be the start of the internet in Norway back in the 90’s.
But I mean, having Dagbladet as title, Dagbladet was and has been for for many, many years very digital, and in the digital forefront also in the newspaper industry, has sparked and driven a lot of the digital change in all of ours.
So, being very traditional magazine, print, getting something in the same building and in the same organisation that is so digitally driven, has of course done something with the rest of Aller in Norway, specifically.
And I think it’s just now until recently, and I think the last year, where we have started to look into what else can we do with digital subscriptions? So we started a site, I think it’s in March this year, so it’s nearly half year, called Elbil24. It’s about electrical cars. And they are very close to now getting 1000 subscribers to their site. And of course it takes three months to start something and then you have the summer so over the summer, they have really had a good growth in terms of cold starting a brand new site with a new brand as well.
And then obviously we’re looking into other types of content that we can sell digital subscriptions for as well. And, that’s definitely a very exciting place to be.
So how does the paywall work on Dagbladet?
We had something that we initially [had] built for Dagbladet. It was basically a prototype that has been added an extra room here, and then added an extra bathroom there., and you know how it is, it’s like a tree house that has been growing for a couple of years. So we tore everything down, and rebuilt it over the last year, and made it scalable for all of Aller.
So now we have a common setup. We just add the product, and then we can basically set on any site that this article, you need to have access to this product in your session when you’re logged in to get access, and if not, you will get the paywall. So as we have made everything on to the same platform, built everything to scale, it really does scale, and that’s super exciting.
So we’re not actually paying that much attention to that now, it’s more into how can we help the conversion when people want to subscribe? And we are focusing on that right now. Because we know that the solution is technical, and it works, adding more payment options, tracking data…
So, initially, we have a strategy to buy all the tech that we need. So we are quite small, I mean, we are, the whole of our development department is less than 50 people and I think we are about 27/28 developers, and the rest is designers and all kind of other functions. So we are in no position to build everything ourselves.
So we basically need to buy the best tech that we can get and integrate it, and take control over the integrations, and sort of look at ourselves as that we’re building an integration platform rather than building a paywall platform. And that has worked out quite good, I would say.
Talking of things that you’ve, well not maybe not built, but certainly sold off, Aller actually ended up spinning out its Labrador CMS – I’m not sure what it’s called now – and they sold it to other publishers. Is that something that you see publishers doing increasingly, that they’re crossing that bridge into becoming almost tech companies themselves?
Yeah. Dagbladet back in the days had a somewhat bigger development department, because it was more tech driven, I think then, or at least they back then had the impression that they needed to be more tech driven themselves.
So in the lack of having the right CMS in the market back then, to be what exactly they needed this tool, they built actually two CMS’s the first one was called Bulldog, and then they made Labrador. And then they saw that, ‘Hey, there’s some market there, others are looking for the same that we have built.’ So they spun that off as a separate company called Publish Lab. We have now sold half of the shares in Publish Lab, so it’s co-owned by the Norwegian broadcaster TV 2. So we are more of a customer there!
Of course, we see, and especially now with the data platforms, and everything that is coming up, other publishers are looking into the same way of funding their development by getting other media companies to buy in on the platform, which initially I think is a good idea.
But then again, it’s important to remember that we are a media company, and we should be a media company, and this is my personal opinion, I don’t see the need for a media company to change and start looking at itself as a tech company, especially when a lot of tech companies starting to see themselves as media companies.
The whole thing of seeing yourself as… or trying to be something else that you aren’t is something I find, sorry for lack of better expression, but a bit unsexy. Nobody likes someone who’s trying to be someone else than what they are. They should be themselves instead.
However, we are seeing different ways of finding revenue, and that’s fair, you don’t have to change being a media company and being a tech company just to justify yourself finding other revenue streams.
Aller Media has several other revenue streams. We have a travel company, which is doing quite well, we have a weight loss company, a huge brand in Norway called Grete Roede, also selling subscriptions. But it’s a different game. And we have event companies arranging concerts and shows around Norway, and that’s finding other revenue streams that we build on top of our media activity, which I think is fair.
So this whole selling off tech that you’ve built doesn’t necessarily have to make you a tech company, although, it wouldn’t hurt anyone to think more like the tech companies, but still being a media company. I mean, we are basically here to serve good journalism. And the other revenue streams should, in my opinion, support serving good journalism.
And talking of working with other publishers around the table, you have actually been collaborating on a single sign-on project. Can you explain a bit about that and why you’re doing that?
Exactly. And here’s a company that’s finding other sources of revenue for funding their login, Amedia. So our collaboration with Amedia goes all the way to the top. It’s a good business case, and it’s public that we are having this commercial sales department together called DIAR.
But we are also using their login service, basically their identity service called AID, so when you log into one of their local newspapers, you can use the same username and password when you log into Dagbladet, or Elbil, or any of our other sites which have this login capability. That allows us to combat the death of the third party cookie, as you talked about a couple of shows ago, an episode I found very, very interesting, because this is actually how we are combating the death of the third party cookie, making sure that we have everything GDPR compliant, and we’re able to share data about users anonymously, making sure that we have good segments and making these segments available for advertisers who want to place ads and reach these customers.
So it’s a very, very good, interesting collaboration. We are not competing against each other in in these markets as well, so it makes it easy as well.
And as part of that you’ve also built your own platform for the customer data. How does that all fit in with the single sign-on?
Yeah, that works quite good. And this is, well, it’s all about integrating, and making sure that we get all the data in the same pool. So we can get data from subscriptions, CRM, we get data from what they read. We have Sol, the news aggregating site, they are giving us information about what the stories are about. So we can harvest information from lots of different sources.
And one of them is also to help create the commercial segments, but I think even more important is that we are able to output it as personalisation on the site. So, we are able to switch out some of the content on our front page, not everything, but some of it, with content that we think is – or not think that but we know – is something that you might want to read more than what is already there.
So basically if you’ve seen a story a couple of times, we know you’re not going to click on it, so we can show you something else instead. And being able to do that on the content side is obviously increasing page views, it’s increasing loyalty, makes sure that the site feels up to date and relevant for you as a user.
But we can also do that with ad spaces. So right here, if we, let’s say, have a high demand for sponsored content, or content marketing, we can use some of these spots and switch them out with content marketing. Or if we are getting low value ads from the network, we can show premium content instead, which we know what price has sort of, if we would buy it as ad space to make sure that we are gaining money of it.
So that whole data platform what has done there is really really interesting. And we’ve been around as well and we know that others are doing quite interesting stuff, but to the extent that we have been able to do the personalisation and data platform, and have everything ready [for the audience] is absolutely astonishing. I mean from the front page itself, we are now within a timeframe of 24 hours, able to show up to four times as many stories.
The distribution by just having the option to change out content that we know that you as a user have seen, and show me something else, makes the value, the distribution value of one page, which is the front page and front pages are really heavy drivers in the region’s news sites, increase by a lot.
So all of this with a data platform and making sure that yes, we are still using the other tools, third party tools to some extent, but all of our data has to go into that platform, because we are using it. And it is really creating value. I mean, everybody has been talking for years that data is valuable, right? But if you’re not able to use it, if you’re not able to use it, it doesn’t have any value, right?
But with the data platform and the integrations, and making sure that we are able to use it, it really produces hard cash flows. And that’s super exciting.
And you’ve actually got a background as an editor yourself. So when it comes to balancing business and editorial needs as a product manager, how much does that background help?
I think it helps a lot. At least a little bit, because I know that for the commercial department and for the editorial department, I know what they’re struggling with. I know what their pain is, and what they are trying to achieve. And I also know that the tech stuff that we’re doing is the least important thing on their list, they just want stuff to work. And it balances out the nagging of my part, because I get the better understanding basically.
So, yeah. I think having that editorial background itself, at least when we’re talking about personalisation, because finally understanding that there is a balance, that we can’t just show stories that would produce clicks, and page views and then we would only serve a small subset of stories, and that would make the total editorial product very bad.
So having that understanding and knowing that, of course, has a value in those discussions.
You’re navigating GDPR, you’ve got lots to deal with, things like ad blocking. What steps you taking to ensure that Aller Media is ready for the next five to 10 years with this tech?
Not taking shortcuts. It’s an easy answer, because every shortcut, you will have to pay for that some time. I think most of the legacy issues that we are facing now, and that we’re cleaning up and that I’ve spent three years cleaning up, is shortcuts that have been made earlier. And that obviously has a cost, but I think also making sure that we understand the importance of finding third party vendors that are open, and that can integrate easily, that have sort of, we can see very fast if they have API, documentation, if their attitude is correct in terms of the job that we want them to do.
Getting third party vendors is always difficult because they might have a long term agenda that doesn’t necessarily fit with yours, that where they want to give, or they want to serve other topics as well, not only the thing that you need help with at the moment. And being clear about what we need, how we are going to use it, and finding those right vendors is an investment that I think is going to pay off for a long time.
It’s easy to look at a subscription management system and a CRM system as one. They look the same, and you pay for almost the same things. And they can do almost the same things. But they aren’t. And they shouldn’t. And you should view them as two separate things.
So having that clear view in it as well, what are you buying, and what are you going to use it for, and not trying to fall into that big corporate pot of boiling stuff that needs to be done!
That’s hopefully making us more ready for the next five to 10 years than what we have been. Although we haven’t been in that bad shape, don’t get me wrong.