Prediction: Digital subscriptions will further grow in 2023, albeit more slowly

By Greg Piechota


Oxford, United Kingdom


In 2022, INMA saw a steady increase of digital-only news subscriptions worldwide amid dwindling engagement with news sites, rising costs of living and inflation. 

And despite higher churn, INMA expects further growth in 2023.

This is a prediction based on historical data of 160 news brands from 33 countries that participated in the INMA Subscription Benchmarking Service. The sample includes national and regional brands, on small and large markets, with new and mature paywalls. 

What were the biggest trends in online news engagement and subscriptions in 2022? What does INMA predict to happen in 2023? And why do we think news subscriptions fare better than entertainment subscriptions amid the rising costs of living and inflation?

Trends: In third quarter 2022, a median growth rate of the total number of digital-only subscriptions was 40% vs. first quarter 2021. At the same time, a median growth rate of the average monthly digital-only subscription revenue was 36%.

A few words on these statistics: Median is a half-way value in our sample of growth rates of 160 brands. It means that half of the brands in the INMA Benchmarks saw a higher volume growth rate than 40% and the other half saw a lower growth rate than 40%. Median growth rate is often interpreted as “normal performance.”

Forecast: By third quarter 2023, a median growth rate for the digital-only subscription base is predicted to further increase to 52% vs. first quarter 2021, and the revenue growth rate is set to reach 47%.

We predicted future values for both indices based on historical data on gross subscription starts and churn rates. In our forecasting, we did not account for economy or market conditions or individual brands’ marketing plans.

Despite this, we are quite confident about the forecasts. We compared our predictions and actual values in the past quarters, and we estimated a median prediction error for one-quarter-ahead forecasts to 1.3 percentage points for volume and 1.2 percentage points for revenue. Error for longer-term forecasts is likely higher.

Analysis: Since the spike in demand for news during the COVID outbreak in 2020, news Web sites across the world have seen declines in the number of online users, sessions, or pageviews. In summary, engagement with news in 2022 looked quite like engagement in 2019. 

Similar recession in attention was observed across media sectors, such as video streaming. As people in most countries returned to their pre-pandemic routines, they simply spent less time with the media.

Surveys also showed that news consumers have increasingly avoided the news, having felt overwhelmed with negative news and worn out by a sheer amount of news available.

In 2022, consumers also suffered from uncertainty around the economy. Worried about rising prices and inflation, most started to buy less or switched to lower priced products. 

This affected media subscription companies with high market penetration, such as Netflix or Spotify, and their negative outlook impacted the mood of news publishers. 

At a November INMA Media Subscriptions Town Hall, 54% participants expected a similar slow down, 7% feared a long-term recession, but 39% remained optimistic.

The optimists might have experienced what INMA had seen in the benchmarks — the sales of digital-only news subscriptions remained surprisingly stable throughout 2021 and 2022.

New starts have been elevated since the pandemic, as publishers kept converting subscribers at increasing volumes — despite declines in online traffic and likely thanks to tighter paywalls and affordable pricing. 

For example, in the third quarter of 2022, a median news brand sold on average 330 digital-only subscriptions per 1 million online users monthly. 

INMA saw a spike in cancellations in 2022 that herald the growth slow down, but average churn rates — calculated vs. a growing and maturing base — stayed assuringly low. 

For example, in the third quarter 2022, a median monthly churn rate was 3.46%. 

Opinion: Why do news publishers continue to grow subscriptions, while other sectors struggle? A few hypotheses:

  • Digital news subscriptions enjoy much lower market penetration than streaming in most markets: compare 7% adults paying for news in the U.K. vs. 65% paying for Netflix or similar in 2022, per Reuters Institute.

  • At this stage of the product category lifecycle, a high proportion of customers are fans and heavy users of news who treat them as essentials or justifiable indulgences.

  • News subscriptions remain affordable in most markets, with an average monthly revenue per subscriber at $8.8 in parity U.S. dollars in the third quarter 2022, per INMA Benchmarks.

  • Fighting for market share, 74% of the top 50 news subscription brands offered discounted trials, per INMA research, and 68% of the trials were longer than 3 months — further speeding acquisition and delaying churn. 

Based on historical trends and this market context, INMA predicts digital-only news subscriptions worldwide to further grow in 2023 in volume and revenue.

Interested in more detailed data and analysis? Join 160 brands from 33 countries that benchmark their subscription performance with INMA. 

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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