7 key global trends in news media subscriptions

By Shelley Seale


TX, United States

The INMA Media Subscription Summit in London recently concluded, with 230 delegates from 37 countries. The summit delved into subscription best practices from 25 media company case studies. No two were alike, and Earl J. Wilkinson, executive director/CEO of INMA, said he and others began to realise there’s a bigger subscription story.

“We began to capture what was being said, in a way we’ve never done in our 88-year history,” Wilkinson said in an INMA Webinar on the subject on Wednesday.

The London Media Summit brought some key lessons in pricing, audience knowledge, and paywall settings.
The London Media Summit brought some key lessons in pricing, audience knowledge, and paywall settings.

Last week, the Media Subscriptions Blueprint report was released to INMA members. The Webinar went deeper into the blueprint for a multi-dimensional look at the topic.

Wilkinson began by looking at a quick snapshot of the history of paywalls and metered models. Once most media companies had adapted some version of these, something interesting happened: The metered model started crashing and burning throughout the industry.

While it was working for The New York Times and a few others, it wasn’t working for most media companies, who wondered why people weren’t signing up.

“Everyone is basically reinventing the wheel, but they’re not talking to each other,” Wilkinson said. At the London Summit, INMA was able to firm up strategic parameters for digital subscriptions, tying tactics to broader corporate strategies, and better matching genres with what’s working.

The history of paywall models has gone from freemium to metered to hybrids.
The history of paywall models has gone from freemium to metered to hybrids.

“If digital subscriptions aren’t part of a bigger growth mission, they aren’t going to work at a level you want,” Wilkinson said. “This really works best with a total company approach.”

When it comes to audience research, he said media companies’ data was probably right; sometimes it just takes a long time to get to the point of doing what the data shows all along. Wilkinson gave the example of The New York Times, which took six years to adopt the metered model that its data pointed to all along.

And, bottom line, media companies need to simply ask people to pay, Wilkinson said: “That was the original sin 20 years ago. We trained a generation of consumers that this information, put into digital format, just basically has no consumer value.”

Value propositions

The value proposition for media companies basically comes down to these four things, Wilkinson said:

  • Content: It’s still king, but not 100% king.
  • Community: That feeling of membership and belonging is important.
  • Convenience: There are convenience factors that are important.
  • Cause: People are buying into the cause as well.

There are emotional and rational sides to all the value propositions — content is the rational aspect and the other three are emotional. Wilkinson noted the interesting difference between what side companies focus on in their marketing in different parts of the world.

In North America, for instance, companies almost exclusively focus on the rational side: content. In India, however, the marketing focus is far more skewed toward the emotional. “I just gently encourage you to think about what are those rational elements and what are the emotional elements,” Wilkinson said, “and to just be aware that content doesn’t drive everything.”

Acquisition triggers

There are 12 article topics that are the main content acquisition triggers for local and regional newspapers:

  • Investigative journalism (20.93)
  • Crime/police/legal (19.85)
  • Highly shareable articles (18.56)
  • Accidents (18)
  • Healthcare (18)
  • Long-form articles (17.92)
  • Opinion (17.67)
  • Local business (16.7)
  • Opinion by star guest writers (16)
  • National politics (14.78)
  • Stories that improve your life (14.23)
  • Live stream local footfall (13.9)

Robert Whitehead, a long-time INMA leader and director of the McPherson Media Group, moderated the Media Subscriptions Summit. He also participated in the Webinar, adding: “When you go through this trigger list, you need to be very, very mindful of what your mission is. Do you stand for something, do you advocate for something? What is your brand value?”

When it comes to national and international newspapers, the topics list is generally the same, but it’s cast differently:

  • Investigative journalism (21.08)
  • Opinion (21)
  • National politics (20.91)
  • Long-form articles (18.82)
  • Healthcare (18.14)
  • Highly shareable articles (18)
  • Opinion by star guest writers (17.9)
  • Business (17.5)
  • Curiosities (16)
  • World politics (15.71)
  • Crime/legal (15.5)
  • Topics that improve your life (15)

“Those mastheads represent a different community, and they have a different mission,” Whitehead said.

Wilkinson said what surprised him about the two lists were their similarities.

Paywall types

The three basic paywall types are meter, freemium, and hard.

The various models of paywalls being used by news media companies.
The various models of paywalls being used by news media companies.

“If you are a metered company, you’ve got to have a high volume of content,” Wilkinson said. “If you don’t have huge volumes of content, you’re just not going to succeed. I think you have to have a lot of triggerable content.”

When you get into the freemium model, companies need to have their data pushed down into the newsroom where decisions can be made. A hard paywall is for a brand that has extreme community connection.

Whitehead went on to explain the newer models of hybrid and dynamic paywalls.

Hybrid: meter + freemium

An example of this model would be a news media company that offered an eight article monthly meter and locked 40% of articles.

“The freemium is the basis of this model,” Whitehead said. “The leftovers, instead of being offered for free, are actually metered. You can choose the type of meter relatively easy. The technology today allows you to change this fairly easily.”

He noted that North America has been the stronghold of the metered model, and Europe has been the stronghold of the freemium model.

Dynamic: personalisation

This is based on reader behaviour and willingness to pay. “Personalisation is coming,” Whitehead said. “Before you pay even one euro to join a subscription membership community, that publisher already knows who you are; the content, the marketing messages, and potentially the acquisition price, is personalised.”

Personalisation is about to break, largely because the technology has gotten much easier. “It’s not so much the speed of its development, but the ease of implementation,” Whitehead said.

The freemium model, however, is still the dominant model worldwide at the moment, whether it’s a major or minor lockdown. Those publishers who adopt a minor lockdown have far higher ratings of reader happiness, versus major lockdown and strict meters.

Yet at the same time, 67% of readers are still shopping around to switch their model, Wilkinson said — largely due to the rise of personalisation: “It’s interesting that there’s a lot of fluidity, happy or sad, as we look at this.”

Conversion and churn

The meter model has a conversion rate of 0.36%, with a time to convert at 11.65 days. The hard/freemium model, on the other had, has a 4.33% conversion rate and 3.65 days to convert.

“The conversion rate [of the meter model] is much lower than the freemium model, and the time to convert is taking way too long,” Whitehead said. “That could be because most publishers that are adopting the meter are not particularly confident in their meter settings, and they’re setting them way too porous. So the meter model has a whole lot of flaws.”

Looking at churn rates, the breakdown is:

  • Meter model: one month 5.6%, three months 15.5%, six months 26.3%.
  • Hard/premium model: one month 7.8%, three months 20.3%, six months 31.3%.

Whitehead noted on this data, however, it’s very difficult to get clear and accurate numbers for churn. He projected that some of the most prominent players in the meter model have been churning as high as 50% — a devastating number.

The case study of Dagens Nyheter was mentioned, as a noteworthy example from the Editor-in-Chief Peter Wolodarski directly tied into the subscriptions and success of the newspaper.

“The ultimate test of whether you’re producing content that people want to read is whether you can sell subscriptions,” Whitehead said. “And for many companies, that consumer revenue is going to be the difference between surviving or not.”

More information needed

“Twenty-five different case studies, 25 different paths,” Wilkinson said of the London Summit. One thing was clear: There were areas in which media companies really need to know more:

  • Definitions of success and metrics: Subscription rates and prices are all over the board for media companies globally.
  • Convenience as a value drive: In the broader subscription economy, convenience is more king that economy, as looked at in Grzegorz Piechota’s presentation.
  • Super-users: There’s a strategic shift from the needs of the community at large to the needs of super-users, as well as a shift from pageviews to the behaviour of paid digital subscribers.


The report landed on seven key conclusions, Wilkinson said:

  1. Value proposition: content, community, cause, convenience.
  2. Freemium: data-fueled, provides more options.
  3. Moving to dynamic: personalised, the direction the industry is going.
  4. Cultural galvaniser: generational opportunity to rally everyone behind the strategy.
  5. Where newsrooms fit: opportunity to bring the newsroom into the game.
  6. Improving retention through engagement: where the next growth wave resides.
  7. Authentic voice content: what triggers subscriptions most.

“Freemium is the winning model today, but we think that dynamic will be the winning model tomorrow,” Wilkinson said. “At bare minimum, newsrooms need to buy in; at bare maximum, they need to lead. I think it’s a real mistake to keep them separated.”

Nothing requires more of a complete overhaul in media organisations that subscriptions, Whitehead said. “Every other form of media diversification, nothing like this exists. This is the opportunity. If you’re going to do this successfully, you’ve got to bring virtually every member of your organisation onto the same page.”


INMA: Can you explain the registration revolution in the realm of media subscription triggers?

Whitehead: I think we’ve got a broader context to understand it now. Virtually every company on the planet is doing this — it’s about knowing your customers. We want to take the users who have the highest propensity to buy from us and make the right offer to them.

INMA: Where do the marketing teams fit into all this?

Whitehead: I think the marketing team is as important as the data revelation.

About Shelley Seale

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