Being a publisher in Estonia is no easy task. While the country is widely recognized as a digital pioneer (it was the first country to offer e-residency back in 2014), it is also small. The overall population is 1.3 million; there are only 1.1 million Estonian speakers worldwide.
Such a crowded market means media need to be both efficient and innovative to succeed. This came in handy during the pandemic – while many publishers had to scramble to cope with declining advertising revenues, outlets like Estonian business daily Äripäev had been working on solutions long before, starting the shift from advertising to subscriptions in 2018.
According to Meelis Mandel, Äripäev’s Editor-in-Chief, discipline, the right editorial mindset, and intensive cooperation were the three main pillars of their transformation. The latter in particular meant much closer cooperation between the editorial and commercial – with both moving towards a joint North Star goal of reaching 15.000 subscribers by end-2020.
But that was only the beginning of their journey. Äripäev also reduced print from daily to weekly and put all its content behind the paywall (which did not result in a drop in advertising).
Now it has a new, bigger goal: becoming the most subscribed business media per capita in the world.
Although the Estonian media market is quite small, it has several upsides. It has seen an investment boom in recent years, exhibits high trust towards media, and the public is willing to pay for digital content.
The Fix spoke with Meelis Mandel, Äripäev’s editor-in-chief, about their learnings from the last couple of years and his plans for the future.
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This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity
The Fix: Could you describe your editorial profile? Who is your main target audience?
Meelis Mandel: We have about 30 people on the editorial team. They are distributed between an investigative desk, a stock desk, and a news desk. 90% of the news we cover is local. We also have a couple conference organisers.
Our content is mostly published online. Print comes out once a week. The Russian version, Delovõje Vedomosti, is published twice a month. Our target group consists of owners and leaders of SMEs, decision-makers in big corporations, as well as small investors.
TF: Your editorial team is closely involved in your North Star goal. What was the rationale behind this decision? Why did you opt for closer cooperation between editorial and business departments?
MM: Three years ago, we decided that sooner or later some economic crisis would emerge and we should be prepared. That means becoming less dependent on advertising revenues.
We needed to increase subscriptions. In the Bonnier Group, we had a joint collaboration with The Financial Times – 5 persons, including me, spent half a year with them in London and Warsaw. The main thing we learned was how to sell online subscriptions.
We came back with a good theoretical base but knew the weak point in every plan is execution. We started to use the methodology described in “The 4 Disciplines of Execution” book by Sean Covey.
It is easy to set a big North Star goal and even work toward it for several weeks. But then it usually slips between your fingers and the momentum ends. To avoid that, we created several new initiatives – workgroups set weekly targets and reported on them. We put up several dashboards with activities and KPIs.
On the editorial side, our editors and reporters started to think in North Star terms, to follow subscribers’ activity and our value proposition for them.
Editorial, sales, data, IT… altogether about 50 people started to cooperate closely. We had several teams and every team had its own North Star and weekly routines. I personally started to make sales meetings with big corporations’ CEOs to sell subscriptions.
In half a year this started to work and the number of subscriptions started to increase rapidly. Three years ago, we had some 10,000 subscribers. The team set a North Star target to reach 15.000 subscribers at the end of 2020.
We started systematic activities in three customer segments – SME’s, corporates, and personal digital users. Äripäev reached its North Star in May 2021. Right now, together with the Russian version, we have more than 18,000 subscribers and 120-150 thousand unique users.
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TF: How did external factors impact Äripäev’s subscription growth? Like the high willingness to pay for news in Estonia or the overall economic situation?
MM: The number of subscriptions is still rapidly increasing and I think this is part of the investment boom in Estonia. I believe we have a really good mood in society in this regard.
We have a high willingness to pay for news and subscription-based models have proven successful. The price of Äripäev’s monthly subscription is 27 Euros. But the average monthly subscription for news media in Estonia is about 5 euros. I think there is room for growth and as far as I know, other media houses are working on that right now.
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TF: Do you offer subscription bundles or is there only one fixed subscription price?
MM: In the case of the paper, the price is 39 Euros with VAT per month. Big corporations get discounts, for example, if they subscribe for 300 accounts to Äripäev, they’ll pay 7-8 euros per month for each account.
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TF: At one point you decided to put all your content behind paywall, which might seem quite risky for many publishers. Why did you make this decision and what were its consequences?
MM: We constantly had in-house discussions on what to put behind the paywall. We really spent a lot of time on such debates. But in 2019 we decided to paywall all the content and nothing really happened, besides increased subscriptions. Even advertising clients didn’t complain because they knew they would still be able to reach their target groups.
TF: After that, you decided to print weekly instead of daily?
MM: That happened later. The beginning of the coronavirus pandemic in spring forced us to do so. In one of my presentations, I said “thank you, corona” because the idea of reducing the print version has been on my mind for a long time.
It’s so foolish to print news on paper. You have to read news from the web and print only some vital stories and value-added content. Right now we have discussions on reducing the print further. Maybe in a year or two, we will start to print only once per month because paper and printing prices are increasing.
On the other hand, right now we have 1 million euros ad revenue in print so we will then have to move these ads to our website. We are making preparations for this.
TF: Is reader revenue already the biggest part of your total income or is that a goal for the future?
MM: Yes, reader revenues are the main income for us. In fact, subscriptions revenues are twice as much as advertising revenues.
In terms of the revenues, conferences are also our priority. We organize four big annual conferences we sell tickets for. They have been very profitable so far.
We hold a 3-day investing festival every summer, gathering 1,500 or maybe 2,000 participants in some tourism villages of Estonia. This is the biggest business conference in the northern and Baltic countries.
Every autumn the biggest capitalists in Estonia come on the stage and share their predictions for the upcoming years. Apart from that, every January we hold conferences specifically for small investors.
TF: Have you thought about expanding your offering for subscribers so they have access to other products except for content?
MM: Talking about small investors, maybe we should create some kind of subscription model for the small conferences and seminars. For example, you pay 300 euros per year and get access to conferences and seminars. This is an idea we are discussing.
TF: Can you briefly elaborate on the products you offer to your readers?
MM: We have more than 10 niche websites. Äripäev focuses on every sector of entrepreneurship, but they specialize in certain sectors including logistics, construction…
They basically have a duplicated subscription model like Äripäev does. They have 10,000 subscribers. So with this, it is quite rapidly increasing revenue. Each of these niche publications offers their own newsletter.
We have two daily newsletters – a general one and the other specifically for small investors. Also, we are quite active on Facebook and Instagram.
TF: Can you please walk me through your traffic distribution by channels?
MM: One-third of the traffic comes from the newsletter, one-third from direct, and one-third from organic search and social. From social media, Facebook is the main traffic driver but Instagram is gaining importance since increasing numbers of small investors use it.
TF: Audio is also something you started to prioritize relatively recently. Could you elaborate on that? Was launching a radio worth it?
MM: Three years ago, we got an FM frequency. We started to make radio in FM, to the same target group – entrepreneurs and SMEs.
Unlike television, radio is a very intimate medium. Our radio is very profitable right now. We found supporters for 90% of our radio programs. These programs also generate great content that we can put on paper.
Apart from prioritizing subscriptions, launching a radio was our best decision. As for podcasts, they are part of our subscription. Most podcast episodes are also behind paywall.
TF: Business news can be quite competitive. What is the most valuable thing readers see in Äripäev?
MM: Our main value proposition is that Äripäev should be useful for our readers’ work. They should be able to make better decisions after reading us. This is the rule we try to follow every day. We also make quarter overviews of different sectors which is very useful information for our audience.
As for the competition, we do not have many business news publishers in Estonia. Big media houses certainly have their business sections. But so far we are better than them.
TF: Before transforming your business model and shifting focus to subscription revenues, what were the main mistakes or failures you experienced?
MM: We had too many advertising banners. Right now it’s different and the advertising section is more interesting than what it used to be. This is something we had to improve.
As for now, our product is not exported. We only have Estonian and Russian issues. Sooner or later, we have to expand because in Estonia there is no room to expand anymore.
We have altogether 250 employees, we are not a very big company but we are sometimes still slow. We need to make quicker decisions. For instance, we have been discussing whether to launch investing conferences in Finland and Sweden for almost a year and nothing has happened yet.
Before, some niche websites were not profitable and we shut them down but we had to act more quickly. If you see a business model doesn’t work, you should kill it sooner than we used to.
TF: What are your expectations and plans for the next few years?
MM: Our big North Star is to become the most subscribed business news source in the world per capita. For that we have to beat Kauppalehti, the leading Finnish business media, which we calculate right now is the most subscribed business news media per capita.
Äripäev is 6,000-7,000 subscribers short of becoming the most subscribed business publication per capita in the world. The goal is to reach our next North Star within the next five years, counting together both titles published in Estonia – Äripäev in Estonian language and Delovõje Vedomosti in the Russian language. An intermediate goal would be to have 20,000 subscribers by 2023.