While newspapers in the U.S. are struggling to find ways to fund online content, Aftonbladet, the most read newspaper in Sweden has been successfully charging for online content for several years. Here’s a look at how paid content is working in Sweden.

Aftonbladet: Early to the Web

Aftonbladet, founded in 1830, is one of the biggest daily newspapers in the Nordic countries. The paper’s content is a mixture of news, entertainment, sports and lifestyle. As a typical Scandinavian evening paper, Aftonbladet isn’t as sensational or punchy as one might expect in a British or American tabloid.

Aftonbladet has a daily circulation of roughly 360,000 and a readership of over 1 million in a country of 9.3 million people. The print paper is sold daily for the equivalent of $1.30, and the paper does not offer subscriptions or home delivery for the print edition.

Its print circulation has been on the decline, but Aftonbladet’s growing online readership is now up to 5 million unique visitors a week. Aftonbladet was the first Swedish newspaper to go online in the mid-‘90s, the first to charge for online content, and the first to find success with this strategy.

Schibsted, a Norwegian media conglomerate, owns 91 percent of Aftonbladet. Schibsted has been very successful at monetizing online businesses, with one example being a Craigslist-style online classifieds business.

Paid Content: Plus Service

Aftonbladet uses a freemimum model for its online content strategy. Most of its content is free, including news and commentary. But readers are charged for the “Plus” service content, and they can pay for it using micropayments or by purchasing a subscription. A subscription costs about $4 per month (or $43 per year). The service started seven years ago and currently has 115,000 subscribers.

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The Plus service includes lifestyle material, such as over 200 different travel guides, health articles, and reviews of cars, gadgets and other products and services. There are also instructional guides for everything from buying an apartment to dieting or owning a pet. The paper also charges for select news stories, such as those that have to do with the Swedish Royal family.

The service’s most popular content are the health articles, travel guides, the yearly lists regarding taxation in Sweden, and the reviews.

“One of the most read articles was about how to get a ‘Fight Club’ body, a very well trained body,” said Elsa Falk, the product development manager at Aftonbladet. “When the article was published, we got many new subscribers.”

Falk said the paper works to get the most out of its popular content by changing the angle and pictures on articles in order to keep them fresh, which enables them to reuse content.

Most of the content offered in the Plus service is produced by Aftonbladet’s staff writers. The paper has created a special editorial group with four editors and one managing editor for its paid service. They select the material that ends up going behind the pay wall.

Experiments with Micropayments

Aftonbladet introduced the micropayment option for the Plus service earlier this year. With this in place, readers can pick any paid article they want and pay a one time fee for that piece of content.

“The total number of purchases increased since we launched micropayments, but sales of subscriptions decreased drastically,” Falk said.

That’s a notable loss for the paper because there is a lack of information of average revenue per user (ARPU) when it comes to micropayment users. That makes it hard to analyze the business. On the other hand, with the micropayment model, the paper gets to see what kind of stories people are willing to pay for individually.

As a result, Aftonbladet shifted the way it’s using micropayments. One big change is that not every Plus service article is available for single purchase.

“We deliberate now carefully about which articles will be available only for Plus subscribers, and which ones are also available for micropayments,” Falk said. “We also raised the price of content available for micropayments.”

Clubs and Movies

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While the Plus service is a big part of the paper’s paid content strategy, it’s by no means the only offering.

Aftonbladet also operates different membership clubs. Currently, its site has a weight loss club and an insomnia club. The weight loss club costs $70 per year or can be joined for about $10 to $15 a month.

The weight loss membership provides a program for dieting, and the insomnia club is, of course, aimed at helping people sleep better. Each club is run by experts in the respective field. The weight loss club has had brought in 380,000 subscribers since its launch in 2003. The Insomnia club just launched, so Falk said it’s too early to share figures or declare it a success.

Aftonbladet also sells documentaries on a pay-per-view basis, and delivers this content in collaboration with producers such as National Geographic and BBC.

“You don’t get rich on showing one documentary, but it is the long tail that matters here more,” Falk said.

The paper has also made it a priority to release iPhone apps, and will be launching an iPad app as soon as the device arrives in Sweden.

“It is necessary to be present in all the platforms, and it is important not to be there only for free of charge,” Falk said.

The Future: More Experimentation

Aftonbladet’s online revenue is growing, and it currently accounts for between 10 and 12 percent of total revenue. One fifth of Aftonbladet’s online revenue comes from paid content. And of all revenue generated by paid content, the journalistic content (such as articles, reviews and guides) accounts for 55 percent. Membership clubs bring in a bit more than one third of total paid content revenue, and the rest comes from selling books and products such as yoga mats and even vuvuzelas.

There are many factors that have contributed to the paper’s online success. For example, Aftonbladet was smart enough to be an early mover on the web in Sweden, and that has resulted in it gaining a large, loyal audience. Aftonbladet has also done a good job creating a sense of uniqueness around its Plus service, and in offering a wide range of content. There is something for a sports fan or celebrity junkie, as well as useful content for anyone buying an apartment, trying to lose weight, or planning a trip.

Falk said the paper continues to experiment with its paid content offerings.

“There are interesting possibilities with ‘Long Tail’ e-commerce, for example,” Falk said.

She said Aftonbladet hasn’t really operated with a holistic strategy for paid content, but that the paper is now developing one.

“We are very much entrepreneurs here at Aftonbladet, and it has been good enough so far,” Falk said. “Now we want to apply more strategic thinking in our plans.”

Tanja Aitamurto is a journalist and a Ph.D. student studying collective intelligence in journalism. She has studied innovation journalism at Stanford, and has degrees in journalism, social sciences, and linguistics. Tanja advises media companies and non-profit organizations about the changes in the field of communication. As a journalist, she specializes in business and technology. She contributes mainly to the Huffington Post and to the Helsingin Sanomat, the leading daily newspaper in Finland, as well as to the Finnish Broadcasting Company. Tanja splits her time between San Francisco and Finland, her home country.