Playbook for subscriptions in 2022 must evolve from traditional audience funnels

By Paula Felps


Nashville, Tennessee, USA


In the year following the COVID bumps and Trump bumps, news media companies had to find new ways to fuel growth.

Greg Piechota, INMA researcher-in-residence, looked at some of the lessons learned from presenters during the final day of INMA’s Media Subscriptions Summit, offering reminders of how news publishers are changing their approach. Much of the past year was about scaling, he said, noting The New York Times did that in a big way.

“We can see that increasingly The New York Times is growing, not because of the news product, the core journalism thing, but because of the lifestyle products or culture products or passion based products around it,” he said. “When we look into new additions, we can see that 54% of new subscriptions sold by The New York Times were actually sold by non-news products.”

Products like games, cooking, and The Wirecutter were drivers of that growth, and Piechota said it demonstrates three ways publishers can build a value position to subscribers: “You can build things, you can borrow things, or you can buy things.”

Building your own product provides more creative control, while borrowing — or partnering with an existing entity — can be faster and less expensive: “It’s much easier to borrow things to partner with Spotify, to offer a bundle, rather than build a Spotify yourself.”

With the recent purchase of The Athletic, The Times showed the benefits of buying things: “Acquiring The Athletic gives them 1.2 million subscribers almost immediately.”

Piechota looked at how reader behaviour has changed and how that is affecting the traditional model of attracting and retaining customers. The funnel no longer works, he said, because it doesn’t represent new marketing strategies. He looked at the different tools for the customer journey:

“The funnel shows the idea that there are many people on top of the funnel, but not that many people convert to subscribe or to be renewed. The pyramid usually talks about how hard it is to move people up.”

Then there are flywheels, in which people engage endlessly in a product, such as in a freemium model.

Most recently, Piechota said, publishers have adopted the idea of a double flywheel, which “emphasises the idea that engagement has a key role and engagement is important before you convert people into subscribers.” That model can be more useful because it shows how important engagement is for retention, he said.

However, the new idea that is generating lots of excitement and attention is the cyclone, which Piechota said differs from the funnel in that entices customers with an attractive offer that motivates them to convert on the spot.

“Then we suck them into the cyclone, and we welcome them. We educate them, we show them the full onboarding sequence. And we give them a very long trial.”

The long trial helps subscribers establish habit and gain more value — which leads to renewals and subscription upgrades. He said 70% of the top 50 subscription brands offer trials, and 70% of those trials last longer than three months, with a median trail offer of nine months.

“We clearly see a new best practice and the most common practice among the big publishers, the fastest growing ones, is to offer a very long trial and a deep discount in a cyclone model.”

The playbook for subscriptions in 2022 is being written with new models, Piechota said, offering a toolbox of takeaways gleaned during the Summit.

In 2022, news publishers will find new ways to improve their value positions, he said:

“Think about building, but also about borrowing and buying. When you up your valuable position, remember that you need also to adjust the marketing mix to these new segments. It might require different packaging of content or features. It might require a different price and in order to unleash the cyclone, consider … giving them a very long introductory period to extend the runaway for engagement.”

About Paula Felps

By continuing to browse or by clicking “ACCEPT,” you agree to the storing of cookies on your device to enhance your site experience. To learn more about how we use cookies, please see our privacy policy.