Publishers tweak COVID-19 paywall strategies as readers seek non-pandemic content

By Grzegorz Piechota


Oxford, United Kingdom


A quick INMA COVID-19 survey recently showed 29 news publishers enjoyed an average bump of 198% in online subscription sales in March. These publishers shared their best engagement tactics for the past two weeks (March 23 to April 6).

Here are the tactics grouped by the stage of the purchase funnel they address:

  • How to find and attract new readers who might become subscribers one day?
  • How to register the newcomers and engage them to increase the frequency of their visits and the number of articles read?
  • How to demonstrate them the value of subscription and convert them?
  • How to engage, nurture value, and retain them? 

Among other findings:

Bump range: Although the average bump in subscription observed was 198%, the range was pretty wide — from 15% to a whooping 900%. (I have interviewed the publisher with the highest bump and will soon publish the case study on

Online traffic: The sites in a sample observed an average 75% spike in the number of unique visitors and 92% spike in page views.

Lock or unlock? A total of 13 out of 29 surveyed publishers, or 45%, unlocked some or all their COVID-19 coverage for free to all readers. The rest kept their paywall intact. 

At the same time, readers’ interest in COVID-19 articles wanes and people are searching for other topics. Live blogs proved to be the top journalism format when the news of the global pandemic broke and readers tuned in for updates, Chartbeat’s analysis of the 100 most-engaging news stories published worldwide found.

Among the top 100 stories 39% were live blogswhich attracted 45% of readers’ engagement time. Articles, the most popular news output, attracted only 35% of engagement. Additionally, infographics and longform journalism performed well. 

Previous research from Chartbeat, per Director of Customer Education Jill Nicholson, showed people engaged with different types of content depending on a platform:

  • On the news site’s homepage, breaking news updates and live blogs worked best.
  • In search, it was factual content, personally relevant information, interactives, and infographics.
  • In social, the best performing articles were human stories and emotional content.

In the week of March 30, traffic to COVID-19 articles went down significantly (-25% daily page views vs. the week before), and the share of page views generated by those articles was also down to 27% (from 31% the week before).

Overall, traffic and engagement time were down week over week, and COVID-19 articles were trending down much faster than other articles. The search traffic saw a steeper decline than social traffic.

“This pattern is potentially a signal that quarantine has become ‘the new normal,’ and readers are searching for less personally relevant information,” reported Bonnie Ray, head of data science at Chartbeat, in a weekly update for INMA members.

Want to learn how to keep the subscribers you acquired during the COVID bump? Join me at a just-in-time Readers First Meet-up: Subscriber Retention In the Age of the Downturn on Thursday, April 16. Sign up here for the Webinar.

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