Media continue transitioning to successful subscription-first strategies in COVID era

By Chandler Wieberg


Austin, Texas, United States


By Dawn McMullan


Dallas, Texas, USA


Quite the virtual crowd gathered on Tuesday at the INMA Media Subscriptions Town Hall, tuning in from 96 countries — some in the middle of the night their time — to hear key learnings from the GNI Subscriptions Lab Europe 2021 and INMA Researcher-in-Residence Greg Piechota.

Piechota shared his original research from 85 news brands, showing the number of digital subscriptions was 95% higher now than the first quarter of 2019.

Original INMA research found online subscriptions have doubled in the past three years worldwide.
Original INMA research found online subscriptions have doubled in the past three years worldwide.

Online subscriptions have basically doubled in the last three years, and, of course, this growth accelerated in 2020, he told the 1,247 Town Hall attendees.

Demand for news spiked during the pandemic, of course, and publishers have been able to translate that into increased digital subscriptions. 

30% of attendees at the Town Hall started their subscription programme more than six years ago.
30% of attendees at the Town Hall started their subscription programme more than six years ago.

The journey to reader revenue involves three steps, Piechota said:

  1. Publishers try a new model. They launch a subscription option as a minimum viable product. Often the paywall is started as a marketing/tech product.
  2. They focus on getting a product-market fit. Media companies see the need to adjust content, product, and marketing. This requires adjusting resoruces and the operating model.
  3. They focus on scaling. This includes their new tech and data stack, new talent and work methods, and the reinvention of the company.

Key takeaways from the GNI Subscriptions Lab Europe 2021

Piechota offered these four takeaways from his nine months with the programme:

  • A shift to online reader revenue still is a difficult journey, but it’s no longer a journey to the unknown. After a decade of transformation, the industry has role models (such as the Financial Times), frameworks and templates from experts (such as FT Strategies), and tools from partners (such as Google).
  • Put audiences at the centre. They are the reason news publishers exist. They are our primary customers. Knowing them, understanding, tailoring content, experiences, and marketing to them is the fundament of our business regardless of the revenue model. This requires a mindset shift.
  • Choose your North Star. It’s hard to get anywhere if you don’t know where you’re going. Start with a vision of success and then plan backwards — how to get there. Align all teams around this vision in the newsroom, product, marketing, sales. This vision will help you choose metrics, prioritise initiatives, guide reorganisations. And offer the way out when lost. The commitment from the top is necessary here.
  • Skills and processes differentiate the winners from laggards. Here’s a big secret of the fast-growing brands. They don’t simply try new things. They follow a rigorous process to generate ideas, prioritise them, and validate with evidence. It’s both art and science, and it’s also fun for the cross-disciplinary teams involved and a way to unleash magic.

Piechota continued the conversation about subscription trends across the world with Sulina Connal, director of news and publishing partnerships/EMEA of Google in France, and Tara Lajumoke, managing director for FT Strategies in United Kingdom. 

INMA Researcher-in-Residence Greg Piechota talks with Sulina Connal (right), director of news and publishing partnerships at EMEA of Google in France, and Tara Lajumoke (left), managing director for the UK's FT Strategies.
INMA Researcher-in-Residence Greg Piechota talks with Sulina Connal (right), director of news and publishing partnerships at EMEA of Google in France, and Tara Lajumoke (left), managing director for the UK's FT Strategies.

Google focuses on digital growth of news partners

With Google launching many digital programs, Piechota asked Connal what areas Google is focusing on. 

“We created the digital growth programme,” Connal said. “We engaged with publishers of different sizes to hear what areas we should be focusing on” ... while also working with experts such as INMA and FT Strategies “to basically cover the fundamentals, which is the other part of the business strategy, which is audience engagement and the revenue strategy.”

This is accomplished from audience development workshops, subscription labs, and a tool Google developed called the “news consumer insight tool” with the idea being “to help surface insights that are reactionable,” Connal said. 

She talked about a demo-site for publishers that Google recently launched, which aims “to help publishers who have spent less time thinking about the problem, to understand what they should be doing in terms of reader engagement and revenue generation.” 

Focusing on the delivery of local news  and integrating it with the delivery of national news is also happening at Google, Connal said, which will help the local brand association.

Transformation of Financial Times in three stages

Greg Piechota went on to talk of FT Strategies, who is the subscriptions consultancy of the Financial Times, which has over one million subscriptions. He asked Lajumoke about the fundaments of the digital transformation for Financial Times. 

“This is a journey that FT has been on over several decades,” Lajumoke said. “The transformation occurred over three broad stages: There was a mindset shift, a skills shift, and a collaboration phase, which we are currently still going through.” 

1. Mindset shift.

“Of the mindset phase was all about having the confidence to charge for independent quality journalism online,” she said. “That meant changing internal attitudes across many departments, including the newsroom, where we had clarity on who the priority customer is — which for us was the reader, not the advertiser.”

Advertising is important and strong within the FT company, and Lajumoke explained this comes from a simple model that was created to allow advertising and subscriptions to coexist online — essentially taking data from the subscriptions and then offering valuable packages for the advertisers. 

“The fact is, it is almost impossible to serve every customer equally at every point in time. For us, there is a lot of emphasising who the priority customer is, particularly at times where you have trade-offs and decisions.”

2. Skills shift.

The skill set phase was all about “developing significant skill sets around data, analytics, marketing, pricing, editorial, new, innovative editorial products, etcetera,” Lajumoke said.

Becoming more creative with developing those skills was important for Financial Times. “We were looking at other industries beyond publishing who had lots of relevant experience that we could learn from,” she explained. 

Along with external help, Lajumoke mentioned looking internally at the talent and skills the team already possess: “It’s also around retraining people, recoaching people, exposing people to these new skill sets that you’re bringing in.”

Data is crucial, she said. Her team appointed a chief data operating officer, and everyone within the organisation “needed to be data literate, regardless of department or level,” she said. 

3. Collaboration phase.

The final phase Lajumoke mentioned is centered around collaboration: “FT started small through audio and newsletter, and tested this idea of creating cross functional teams that collaborate across departments.”

Eventually, these collaborative teams created a mission structure, which included several different departments bringing together their individual skills. “That really helps to align interest. It really helps to reduce conflict and competition, and get everyone focused on that big mission.”

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