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Hunting for success

Contrary to popular belief, a small niche publisher with only a relative handful of unique visitors can profit from an expensive investment in its digital operations. Go ahead, be “klein aber fein,” because the internet allows your niche to scale. In its work with WEIDWERK, the membership magazine for the NÖ Jagdverband (the Lower Austrian Hunting Association), STRG has succeeded where other agencies fear to tread.

Among its clients, STRG has several large media corporations that have broad national reach and deep pockets. However, STRG doesn’t shy away from partnering with regional publishers that reach a much smaller, niche audience. The resources deployed for its large projects, such as STRG.CMS and BeHave, as well as STRG’s high-end consulting services, can be scaled to smaller clients’ needs and can accommodate modest budgets.

By partnering with the client to develop a bespoke business case, STRG will show it how to justify its investment in digital technology and ensure that the returns will cover the cost of implementation, as well as the ongoing administration and development.  

“Most people would say that a site with such low traffic volume could never make money. But our work with WEIDWERK proved that it’s possible!”

Jürgen Schmidt, STRG’s CEO

WEIDWERK is a print magazine that has catered to Lower Austria’s hunting enthusiasts since 1928, some twenty years before its current publisher, the NÖ Jagdverband (the Lower Austrian Hunting Association) was even founded. The magazine has a modest monthly circulation of 46,500 copies, distributed free of charge to the association’s active members and to a smaller number of paying subscribers. Its content includes feature articles, news, event listings, product reviews, recipes for cooking game, and profiles of dog breeds.

The hunting community is often stereotyped as very traditional, conservative, and old-fashioned, so when WEIDWERK approached STRG to develop and implement a digital strategy for their traditional print business, Schmidt was skeptical at first: “I was raised in a rural Austrian community, where going hunting was really just an excuse for drinking Schnaps with your neighbors. My own father was a ‘beater’ – the guy who drove the wild game towards the shooting range – and I remember my mom always got upset when he and the other hunters would come home totally drunk!”

Schmidt’s partner, Mic Dosser, brought him up to date on the contemporary hunting scene. Dosser had recently begun training to get a hunting license and knew that alcohol consumption is strictly verboten while hunting these days, and the community of hunters has diversified, become younger, and even attracts urban professionals.

Indeed, when the association began headhunting for a new CEO in 2017, many expected their board to choose one of the “good old boys” in their circle – that some old crony would be appointed. Instead, they approached a young female lawyer, Silvia Scherhaufer. As a hobby hunter with an insider’s knowledge of the Lower Austrian government and law, she was the ideal, if unexpected fit.

Scherhaufer’s appointment in January 2018 was more than a symbolic statement. She quickly moved to attract new audiences and modernize communications with the core members. “It’s true that we’re a traditional community,” admits Scherhaufer, “but we attract a broad range of new people to our training courses – from farmers to civil servants to CEOs of Austria’s biggest corporations. And we also want to better inform non-hunters that hunting is a living thing with more aspects to it than just shooting deer.”

While WEIDWERK already had a website, it had merely replicated the print magazine’s content and its “shop” displayed merchandise without any checkout functionality. She knew there must be a way to bring it up to speed and even make it profitable, but she was as clueless about digital business strategy as Schmidt was about hunting.

During the initial planning workshops, STRG and the WEIDWERK team brainstormed several ideas. Everyone agreed that targeting mobile phones was critical – not only to reach younger readers, but also that “captive audience” of hunters who sit quietly all night in the dark forest, just waiting for prey, and have nothing else to do but look at their phones. “We thought that while they are sitting out there at 3:00 am, they could be buying our merchandise online!”

Schmidt was still skeptical that shop sales alone would offset the expense of relaunching a site. “I asked Martin, the editor-in-chief, ‘who on earth would buy a hunting knife costing 1,500 euros?’ He replied, ‘that one is our best seller!’” Schmidt became convinced that, though small in number, the WEIDWERK readers are highly motivated fans who often spend every extra euro they have on collecting hunting gear. 

“The planning workshops enabled both sides to explain and understand each other’s  concepts, visions and capabilities,” recalls Scherhaufer. “STRG brought in unique ideas that  we could never have imagined on our own.  And both of us could better determine if our ideas fit to our respective frameworks and resources.”

For example, Schmidt advised WEIDWERK not to pursue a pay-per-click or display-ad sales model, as the site’s traffic volume could never be high enough to make this profitable. Instead, WEIDWERK should rather sell a fixed presence on the site to an advertiser, such as the Austrian shooting-sport chain store, Kettner, and making affiliate deals on resulting sales. Scherhaufer’s team saw how this would also “give us a better way to market advertorials for both print and digital. And it worked!”

Likewise, it was mutually decided to not implement a subscriber paywall, but rather share all content freely. Most subscribers are getting their magazine for free as members of the association, and to build user-registration and log-in functionality into the site would be a wasted investment. “We also don’t want to stop kids from visiting this site, see the merchandise and convince their parents to buy them stuff,” says Schmidt, only half-jokingly.

They also decided against developing a fancy classified-ad feature for peer-to-peer commerce. “There was already another website for buying and selling pre-owned hunting gear, and there is also Austria’s immensely popular online P2P portal, Willhaben,” explains Scherhaufer, “we couldn’t compete and it’s not our core business.” Schmidt clarifies, “certainly, we could have developed a business case for creating it, but second place is the first loser, as they say.”

What sealed the deal was that by adopting STRG.CMS as their editorial back-end system, WEIDWERK’s small publishing staff could publish the site content and manage its digital assets without requiring any special web-programming expertise. It also enabled of STRG’s AI software, BeHave, to be scaled to their needs. 

For WEIDWERK, BeHave reacts more on a semantic level than on a user-personalization level. It semantically synchs article and advertorial content with product teasers. “It’s all about analyzing and maximizing the user journey,” says Schmidt. “Do they read the content? Are they happy when they read it? Are they scrolling at the right speed? Do they end up on the page where they can buy something? Is the purchase process efficient? Is Weidwerk trustworthy, too expensive, or do readers see items on the site and then go to Kettner to buy?” 

At first Schmidt was concerned that the relatively low traffic volume wouldn’t be sufficient for BeHave to function as designed, “but it turned out that high-volume traffic wasn’t necessary. That was my main goal – to make this ‘little thing’ successful. You know, Austria has only 8 million residents, you will never get the traffic volume necessary for generating pay-per-click income. The real art is how to get ROI from a small audience of highly motivated fans.

STRG’s partnership with Weidwerk should prove to everyone that this is possible, just as Weidwerk has proved that today’s hunters aren’t just a bunch of traditional old boys who are justschwer bewaffnete alkoholiker, die durch den Wald ins Wirtshaus gehen,” as the old joke goes. 

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