Indian subscriptions initiative surfaces pillars for growth

By Madhavi Sekhri


New Delhi, India


As the pandemic has helped precipitate the digital transformation journeys for news media worldwide, India has seen a major movement towards media companies being driven to building digital subscriptions.

In India, while print remains deeply entrenched in the overall media architecture of news dissemination and consumption, almost all news media companies are assiduously working on conceptualising a blueprint for the road map to digital subscriptions. Some are already well ensconced in their subscription’s journeys, while others are just commencing theirs.

Towards this end, the Meta Journalism Project and INMA conducted a mentor-led subscription accelerator in August that aimed to bolster digital subscriptions journeys among Indian news media companies. The programme included participation from traditional legacy news media houses with distinct digital verticals, along with pureplay digital news outfits. 

The delivery mechanism of this engagement was built around a mentorship programme entailing meaningful interactive sessions and a hands-on approach. All participating companies received an opportunity to interact with three mentors – each with deep-rooted knowledge and understanding of digital subscriptions in news media.

From left to right: Jonathan Gupta Buckley, vice president of growth at Numerade; Espen Egil Hansen, founder of Fyrr; Robert Whitehead, an Australia-based media veteran of Fairfax Media.
From left to right: Jonathan Gupta Buckley, vice president of growth at Numerade; Espen Egil Hansen, founder of Fyrr; Robert Whitehead, an Australia-based media veteran of Fairfax Media.

The mentors for this programme were: 

  • Jonathan Gupta Buckley, vice president of growth at Numerade and formerly vice president media and subscriptions at The Wall Street Journal. Jon detailed the levers to grow a subscriptions business and encouraged attendees to use data over opinion in decision-making.
  • Espen Egil Hansen, founder of Fyrr, a consultancy to assist media companies in business and editorial strategies, and formerly editor-in-chief and CEO at Aftenposten. Espen walked attendees through the newsroom transformation journey, what constitutes culture change, and the importance and process to taking value metrics to the newsroom.
  • Robert Whitehead, an Australia-based media veteran of Fairfax Media and current advisor to, and investor in, start-ups and INMA’s Digital Platform Initiative lead. Robert laid out a robust foundation for what the digital subscriptions journey entails and can achieve, along with a comprehensive list of elements constituting a positive health check on digital subscriptions. 

I had the opportunity to attend each of the sessions, and this blog shares key takeaways and highlights areas discussed at these engaging and insightful sessions. The spectrum of subjects covered was a compelling blend of range and depth, covering the varied aspects that go into creating and nurturing a conducive environment for the digital subscriptions model.  

Knowledge was exchanged on the gamut of digital subscriptions, all dovetailing into action points with the potential to assist news media houses to refine their digital subscriptions strategy and processes.

Organisational alignment, resource allocation, and value proposition

It is seen to be extremely important to have complete alignment for digital subscriptions within an organisation, from top management down. 

Accordingly, decisions regarding resource allocation need to be made. An ideal team structure would have resources focused on audience growth, acquisition, conversion, habituation, and retention. At times, resource allocation conflict could arise in terms of employee allocation to the newsroom as opposed to the advertising function.

A key takeaway here is that each brand must be crystal clear on its purpose and core value proposition, knowing where readership, loyalty, and content fit in. The right core value proposition therefore allows customers to better understand the benefit of becoming a subscriber.

Growth strategy

Emphasis was laid on how organisations need to deliberate on the pillars of growth and accompanying focus areas of reach, frequency, funnel optimisation, pricing, and growing habits.

Publishers therefore would need to pivot to developing and expanding acquisition funnels rather than just the conversion funnel. Reference was made to a INMA survey conducted across 52 publishers in emerging markets showcasing how most of the growth worldwide has come from light readers and not brand lovers during the past 12 months.

To keep growth on track, news publishers should track key information about Web site visitors.
To keep growth on track, news publishers should track key information about Web site visitors.

Publishers should track:

  • Web site reach.
  • How many first-time visitors have been to the site.
  • How many people are coming back to the site and how many times are they returning to the site in a stipulated period.
  • At what frequency are they most likely to convert. 
  • The best tools to building a habit within the first 30-days.

It was discussed how marketing SEO and paid media shows results but requires time. Accordingly, publishers need to know what constitutes appropriate spend on paid media, its role as a tool to drive readers to the Web site, and for retargeting. Publishers should also be mindful of benchmarks on cost per acquisition and the percentage of people hitting a paywall to the percentage conversions.

In terms of pricing, this is varied and impacted by multiple factors including audience willingness and capability to pay, new geographies, competition, value proposition, and content delivery. It was pointed out how trials could play an important role as a potential tool to convert more readers faster if there is synergy between the matching brand purpose and pricing.

It was also pointed out how publishers from the beginning of their subscriptions journey must keep their eye on the average revenue per user (ARPU) and on the lifetime value of a customer. Price increase basis audience segmentation and pricing basis geographies seem to be the best ways to maintain a healthy ARPU basis the data available thus far.

To effectively set the context, a landscape analysis was undertaken on paywall models and strategies.It was discussed how news media outfits are experimenting with metered, freemium, hard paywalls, hybrid models, and taking a closer look at The Wall Street Journal’s propensity-based model that identifies users’ willingness to buy.

Also discussed at some length was content strategy, or the use of premium articles to attract registrations and subscribers, what constitutes sticky content, and mapping it efficiently to use as a marketing and acquisition tool and to drive reader segmentation.  

Registrations and first-party data

It has been observed that registration walls are good ways to warm up cold prospects. Initiating readers with soft registrations could work to the advantage of publishers with the goal being to capture minimal yet relevant data and from thereon improve registration conversations.

Another strategic imperative entails the publisher bringing focus to building first-party data at every stage of the subscriptions process starting registrations, with the ultimate objective of getting all users logged in.

Onboarding and measures to build a habit

It was discussed how onboarding is key to helping new subscribers discover value of their subscriptions. To boost engagement, organisations would therefore need to focus on getting subscribers to create habits and build trust in their first 30 to 100 days. It was suggested that it would be useful to plan the first 100 days as most subscribers churn during this time frame.

Creating a subscriber habit in the first 100 days is vital to long-term success.
Creating a subscriber habit in the first 100 days is vital to long-term success.

Deep dives were conducted on the onboarding process during some sessions, and these led to the following focus areas: 

  • Calibrating the duration of the onboarding cycle.
  • Additional information to be captured during the time. 
  • Frequency at which readers should be revisiting a Web site.
  • Retention tactics and techniques to bring back readers to the Web site.

Also discussed was that newsletters as an acquisition-conversion tool is well accepted worldwide.  Newsletters are also a useful retention and engagement tool for existing subscribers and play a significant role in building a habit. One of the takeaways was how publishers in India are experimenting with targeted newsletters, though some are yet to experience the same success as their global counterparts given that they are currently seeing low click-through and opening rates.

Another takeaway was how e-mail onboarding series are an effective medium of engagement and have increased in popularity globally. This has also been reflected in strategies of Indian news media houses.

Specific to India, it was discussed how messaging apps such as WhatsApp are widely popular even in their role of aggregating and providing news. So, the social media strategy might have to be customised for India. At the same time, e-mail series, newsletters, text messaging, push notification, and social media will continue to play a role in the onboarding process. 

Technology, payments, and churn

It was emphasised how each organisation must work towards investing in an appropriate technology stack and data collection that align with their strategic goals.

It was important to ensure technology was not seen to be a deterrent in getting started. The focus therefore should be on getting adequate technology in place rather than be overwhelmed by it.

A key context setting exercise, it was suggested, would be assessing, and setting appropriate KPIs for technology partners to optimise results.

Areas of discussion included the implications of the ios14 updates, Apple’s Intelligent Tracking Prevention (ITP), the impending phase out of Google’s third-party cookies in its Chrome browser, and the evolving data privacy regulations and RBI guidelines in India.

Discussions also centered around the shift in measurement tools towards value measurement from the earlier metric of volume measurement against stories. For example, why a certain story is consumed, whether it is consumed to the end or not, has it prompted registrations/ subscriptions, and how valuable is the article to one’s business and to audiences.

Also discussed was the offering of seamless payment renewal processes and how they may merit a closer look with payment renewals via credit cards being a deterrent to recurring payment model in India. It was felt that given current guidelines, publishers could need to work on strategies to decrease churn by actively engaging with a subscriber as a part on the onboarding process and offering longer term subscription options.

Newsroom transformation and culture change

Key topics explored on newsroom transformation and culture change included:

  • How does an organisation change the editorial mindset from print to digital?  
  • It was discussed how, in the context of the newsroom, given the definitive need to take value metrics into the newsroom and how to make the shift from an advertising model to a subscriptions model are areas demanding attention, each organisation is constantly working on optimising this exercise and balance. 

The key takeaway here was that each publisher needs to imbibe how journalism remains the holding point of a digital and eventually an integrated newsroom, with there being a paradigm shift to a reader-centric story.


The news media industry worldwide is constantly innovating and redefining pillars for growth.

These are exciting times. This is not about print vs. digital nor about projections anticipating whether print will flourish or decline. This is simply about creating a path for independent journalism and to evolving into a technology and data platform with the potential of unlocking e-commerce and more, if such a choice is made. 

This programme encapsulated a captivating movement in the India news media evolution, and one which is sure to continue to pivot, disrupt, and innovate.

About Madhavi Sekhri

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