Optimizing digital subscriptions in emerging markets

Part 1: Best practices from RBS in Brazil

REUTERS

By Chaymae Samir |  Aug 30, 2019

How does a traditional media company in the Global South stay relevant in the digital age? Learn how Grupo RBS, a 60-year-old Brazilian conglomerate of newspapers, radio and TV stations, has successfully pivoted and emerged as an example of embracing change in the newsroom and increasing digital revenue in South America, and beyond. 

Through a four part series, we examine how RBS innovates across their business, galvanizing their digital proposition and improving the buoyancy of print. From newsroom transformation led by data to high quality local content, we take a deep dive into the group’s transformation. 

In 2016, RBS commenced group-wide transformation that has seen them merge their main businesses – television, radio and newspapers; sell off five of their eight newspapers, and change most of their senior leadership.

Based in the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul, RBS is one of the largest multimedia groups in Brazil, encompassing 12 TV channels, five radio stations, and three newspapers. RBS also broadcasts Globo TV content in the southern part of the country. 

In fact, the group dominates the south with a reach of about 11 million people each month – 99% of the population in that part of the country.

Its Zero Hora newspaper ranks first in Brazil in terms of social media engagement, with 23.3 million online visits each month. A long way from 60 years ago, when its founder Maurício Sirotsky Sobrinho a Brazilian of Eastern European descent, founded RBS by affixing a loudspeaker to a light pole in a square. 

But, in a global and competitive media landscape, and a difficult national economy, the only way to sustain journalism seems to be through digital platforms where paid content appears to thrive. 

RBS was forced to shift its direction, powering its local journalism with digital subscriptions. In 2016, RBS undertook group-wide transformation that has seen them merge their main businesses – television, radio and newspapers; sell off five of their eight newspapers, and change most of their senior leadership.

Talking with Andiara Petterle, senior vice president of product and operations at RBS about this shift, we gained fascinating insights into RBS’ strategies to optimize and increase revenue from digital and how the group led a change in its business and newsroom model, slowly becoming a ‘digital-first organization’.

The switch to digital subscription-only strategy

According to Petterle, RBS started its transition to digital in late 2015, at the beginning of the global interest on the matter and after seeing results by pioneering case studies such as the New York Times. At the time, the group wasn’t sure of the sustainability of the digital subscription business but they started building their paywall anyway. 

‘‘We started doing a lot of research locally in our state to understand why people would be willing to pay for news, especially when they have access to free news coming from Globo.’’ says Andiara Petterle. 

As of 2018, upward of 2.1 billion internet users lived in emerging markets. By 2022, that number will likely swell to around 3 billion, and three times as many internet users will live in emerging markets as in developed markets. According to estimates by BCG, the total value of digitally influenced spending in emerging markets will approach $4 trillion.

Read further: For startups in the Global South, is success simply surviving?

In Brazil, there is not a national newspaper and the offering is all regional. So RBS leaders had to make challenging decisions, which ultimately led to increased efficiency in operations and sales:

  1. Sold one brand, ultimately reducing their portfolio to three brands.
  2. Focused on being ‘local for locals’, driving growth with local audiences: ‘‘Three or five years ago we had a broader approach, especially in our newsrooms, but now we really focus on the city and what’s going on across the street’’.
  3. Developed three lines of product
    On top of Zero Hora’s print and digital product offering, the 4th largest newspaper in the country, RBS developed three lines of product:
  • GaúchaZH
    In 2017, the group merged content from its news business with radio into one digital product, becoming the largest and most popular radio in the state.

     

    “It was essentially a risk because they were both successful individually and one was providing free content and the other one paid. We’ve combined the two in a paid content model, the audio turned out to be a very popular product and encouraged us to fully launch in the road of digitalization. Actually, every single month we’re launching new products based on audio and podcasting.’’

  • Pelas Ruas (‘’On the Streets’’)
    The application is a collaborative platform that connects state residents and through which users are able to share problems in Porto Alegre and the Metropolitan Region, thus contributing to finding solutions and pushing the model of
    ‘‘Citizen Journalism’’
  • Two dedicated apps for beauty and local soccer
    ‘‘A case of non-impartial journalism’’ as Petterle suggests. Upselling is an important strategy across RBS apps. For example, the football app dedicated to fans of a specific team gives users the opportunity to interact with hosts, a feature Petterle said users are willing to pay for.

“This is the bundle we’ve been developing and evolving since 2015. The idea was to differentiate ourselves from the other news providers, not just locally, but in other states as well.’’

The shift from print to digital subscriptions has been working. Digital circulation has been growing 58% year-on-year. 

“We are building a portfolio of digital products that takes into account the level of digital adoption and the need for curatorship, that means we have products for digital natives that are built in that way, and we have others trying as much as possible to simulate the experience of print reading,” says Petterle.

One RBS brand, GaúchaZH, combines the best of its newspaper and  radio content behind a metered paywall

Next, we’ll tackle how RBS continues to transform its newsroom, integrating different roles and departments to break up the compartmentalized working and spur digital growth.

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