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Presented by Maike Schiller, Head of the Editorial Culture Team

April 17, 2024

Driving conversions: How new ways of thinking about arts audiences has boosted subscription sales at Hamburger Abendblatt

This is the story of how the culture desk at Hamburger Abendblatt decided to think outside the box in how they reach audiences and as a result increased the number of conversions from culture content by 37% over a year. It’s about identifying new audiences, like the 400,000 people who sing in Hamburg choirs, or pop-up audiences who are in intense need of information related to a specific event. The success of the culture desk is now inspiring change

in the wider newsroom, and we hope it will inspire you too – this is about how local journalism can benefit from a focus on readers’ needs.

Presented by Maike Schiller, Head of the Editorial Culture Team

By Cecilia Campbell

"Have fun with it, and keep an eye on the numbers"

We were immediately drawn to this case, as it shows that deploying a creative and iterative approach can generate results in what might be perceived as unlikely places. At Hamburger Abendblatt, last year’s project at the culture desk was about reaching greater art audiences and turning already interested art readers into subscribers. “It also helped overcome newsroom prejudices around art content,” said Head of the Editorial Culture Team Maike Schiller during the webinar. “It worked because everyone had a lot of fun doing it, and we inspired change in the wider newsroom, which has been very motivating for our team.”

This case is about how local journalism can benefit from a dedicated approach to user needs.

Background and context of the job to be done

Hamburger Abendblatt is the largest newspaper in the north of Germany. It’s the main title in its region, which goes up to the Baltic Sea and North Sea. Hamburger Abendblatt set up a website back in 1996, and launched Germany’s first online newspaper paywall in 2009. Today, most articles are for subscribers only. The site has just short of 2.5 million unique visitors a month (more numbers in the slide deck, link below).


Hamburg is Germany’s second largest city, and a great culture centre, with 40 museums, 60 theatres and over 100 clubs. The city is also home to the Reeperbahn Festival (some 700 events at 80 locations). Hamburger Abendblatt’s first podcast, Elphidelity, was produced by the culture desk to coincide with the opening of the great new concert hall on the river, Elbphilharmonie in 2017. The paper now publishes 30-40 podcasts.


In 2023, the newspaper completed a big reorganisation, and changed to an online-first structure, with a central superdesk with one digital and one print editor. There are also a number of district based local teams working to increase the digital market penetration. In addition four teams are focused on specific audiences; sports, business, politics and culture.


What the culture team did

The culture team at Hamburger Abendblatt was a part of the 2023 cohort of the WAN-IFRA Table Stakes program, which is focused around audience development (links below for more info). Maike Schiller’s team set to work identifying audiences beyond the traditional culture readers, audiences they didn’t really reach. Some were younger, some linked to specific events. “For each audience it’s about making their lives easier, covering all parts of the experience, making it last longer and so on. Where we used to just write a post-concert review, we now do lots of articles ahead of time, including around practical questions like transport. For exhibitions we might write different articles aimed at different reader groups. We may for example do one article about whether an exhibition is fun for children, even though it might not be for them, in addition to our standard article.”


Other aspects of the audience centric approach:

• The culture desk was turned into a mini publishing team that also includes key people from marketing, tech and data

• A workflow was set up that guarantees that key music and theatre reviews always have priority and are published online as soon as possible.
• They change the approach on stories/sections that are not successful yet. (Success equals driving some subscriptions, or finding at least 1000 readers.)

• The team tries to do more follow-ups on stories that are a success.
• A dashboard accessible to everyone in the team means it’s easy to track success.


The culture desk has also developed its weekly newsletter, Zugabe (Encore), which now has 5000 subscribers and a 30% open rate. The newsletter has become a good source of advertising revenue, and the culture team is planning to launch a special discounted subscription offer to newsletter subscribers.

Examples of content – and the results

When Bruce Springsteen came to town, the team created lots of “what you need to know” content, had a fan writing about their experience, and published a quick review before midnight when people were still on the train back from the concert. Hamburg's Senator of Cultural Affairs, who is a Springsteen fan, also wrote review. All in all the content around Springsteen generated a reach of 116,000 people and 60 subscription sales.


For the popular Caspar David Friedrich exhibition at the Kunsthalle, the team produced the traditional article, but then went to the Kunsthalle every day to write about different aspects, including how crowded it was, what you could buy in the museum shop etc. “With the dashboard, we could quickly see what worked and what was less successful with this pop-up art audience,” said Maike.

The new approach to audience development produced some fantastic results both in terms of subscription sales and reach:


Calling all Swifties!

In Hamburg, the biggest cultural event(s) of this year are two Taylor Swift concerts. Maike decided to reach out to the newsroom at large for extra feet on the ground. “You never know who is a Swiftie – or the parent of one, for that matter. We wrote an email to everyone, asking for ideas – we’re planning a pop-up newsletter, and we’re going to need lots of content. It turned out there are lots of colleagues from other sections who are excited to be involved.”

Other plans for 2024 include initiatives to reach even more specific audiences, including around the Reperbahn festival and producing content aimed at the 40,000 people in Hamburg who sing in choirs.

The Culture Desk's achievement, as Maike Schiller sees it:

• We have a sharper perspective on what we do 

▪ We work more closely with the marketing department 

▪ We have more people at the culture desk who are with us on the same page 

▪ We have a better appreciation in the newsroom 

Useful links and contact information

E-mail address to Maike Schiller who presented the case and can reply to questions. 

Her presentation slides are here.

Links to some of the articles mentioned: 
Caspar David Friedrich: Lohnt sich die große Ausstellung? (reach 30,000+)
Nachfrage zu groß: Caspar David Friedrich sorgt für Ernüchterung (reach 24,000+)
Kurator: „Bestimmte Ausstellungen müssen teils übervoll sein“ (reach 23,000+)



There latest edition of the Table Stakes report, full of great cases of local and regional publishers working on audience development, free to download for WAN-IFRA members.

​Article in Poynter about creative audience development at independent local news sites in the US.

You can also contact Cecilia at the WAN-IFRA Innovate Local team if you have questions.


If you know of other relevant cases that are similar, please let us know, and we will add them here. Thanks in advance!

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