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New INMA research reveals winning subscription strategies

By Greg Piechota


Oxford, United Kingdom


Since 2019, the top 25% news brands grew their digital subscription base seven times faster than the bottom 50%, and they grew digital subscription revenue three times faster, a new INMA study shows.

This is based on data of 102 national and regional news brands across the world, collected in the new INMA programme called Subscription Benchmarking Service

The analysis covers the development of digital-only subscription of 30 INMA corporate members from 2019 to 2021.

In a nutshell:

  • 60% of the fastest growing brands are regional or metropolitan, and 40% are national. 

  • They seem to have strong brands and reputations in breaking news.

  • They have tighter paywalls than others.

  • They offer subscriptions at a discount and have very efficient check-out flows.

  • They see a lower ARPU and higher churn than other brands, but they add so many new subscribers that make more revenue anyway.

Who is growing the fastest? 

We segmented the 102 brands by the growth rate of digital subscriptions in the past three years and looked into the characteristics of the brands in the upper quartile.

  • 60% of the fastest growing brands are regional or metropolitan, and 40% are national. This is debunking a myth that only big, national brands succeed in digital subscriptions.

  • 73% of the fast growers are based in Europe and the rest in the Americas. Perhaps this just confirms that publishers and consumers in these two regions are further along in digital transformation than others.

  • 60% of the fast growers are three to six years in the market with online subscription. They are therefore rather mature, likely found the product-market fit already, and they are organisationally ready for scaling up. 

Anatomy of growth

We wanted to find out what the fast growers do differently than other publishers. Therefore, we studied differences in reader engagement and subscription metrics between the top 25% brands and those above the median, and in the bottom 50%.

  • The fast-growing news sites seem to have strong brands and reputations in breaking news, as they saw higher traffic spikes during the COVID pandemic and the 2020 U.S. presidential elections than others.

  • They have tighter paywalls than others, stopping six times more users than the bottom 50%. Their average paywall stop rate was 30%.

  • Interestingly, 40% of the fast growers have a hybrid paywall, targeting users based on both engagement (meter) and interests (freemium). Further 27% have a hard wall.

  • They also charge lower prices than others and have very efficient check-outs. They converted eight times more users at an average paid stop conversion rate of 0.36%. 

Price of the growth

Such fast growth comes with trade-offs. These brands trash the recommendations from the textbooks of customer relationship management, and optimise for the total revenue from subscribers rather than maximise individual customer lifetime value.

  • The fast growers see lower and decreasing average revenue per subscriber: Their monthly average revenue per subscriber (ARPU) is around half of what others enjoy.

  • They also see higher churn than other publishers: Their monthly churn for digital subscribers is around double of other brands.

  • In the end though, the 7.5 times higher spike in the online subscriptions sales volume led to 3.2 times higher total revenue growth rate.


This data set confirms earlier analyses of the growth patterns in the pandemic. The most successful brands broadened each stage of the reader funnel: attracted more people to the news sites, exposed more people to offers, and convinced more people to try a subscription. 

There’s no silver bullet here, as all news subscription fundamentals needed to come together to enable fast growth: a strong brand, engaging journalism, bold promotion, and efficient user experience.

This data set also explains the rising popularity of new subscription marketing tactics, best described as the cyclone. Publishers speed up the acquisition with tight paywalls and discounts, while delaying churn with long introductory trials. 

First observed in the United States in 2019, these tactics spread across the Atlantic to Europe and other regions. By February 2022, based on my research, most of the top 50 news subscription brands worldwide offered deeply discounted trials longer than three months. 

Interested in comparing your performance to similar brands internationally? Join the INMA Subscriptions Benchmarking Service.

Greg’s Readers First newsletter is a public face of a revenue and media subscriptions initiative by INMA, outlined here. Subscribe here. 

About Greg Piechota

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