Questions and answers about subscription, content success

By Greg Piechota


Oxford, United Kingdom


Every week, members reach out to INMA and me to help them find relevant research, case studies, or best practices in reader revenue. Here are some recent questions and answers. 

Q: In general, what are the most important factors for publishers to succeed in digital subscriptions?

A: In some markets, for example in Scandinavia, higher proportion of consumers pay for online news than elsewhere, according to annual surveys of the Reuters Institute.

I found this proportion correlates with the printed newspaper readership in the past, and my colleagues also saw it correlated with the proportion of payers for online video and audio.

On the news business level, based on the Piano benchmarks, the key factor appears to be time in market — the sooner one starts selling subscriptions, the sooner one learns how to do it.

In a recipe for reader revenue success, FT Strategies and other consultants often add to the list of ingredients: strategic alignment and collaboration (e.g., company-wide goals, multi-disciplinary teams), knowledge of the customer (e.g., research and data analytics), experimentation culture (e.g., hypothesis-driven, iterative development), putting your house’s tech and data in order.

On a news brand level, our members observed for example:

  • Brand awareness (direct visitors are found more likely to purchase).
  • Quality of the editorial output (e.g., measured by time spent or advocacy).
  • Composition of the audience (e.g., the share of frequent readers).
  • Exposition rate of offers (most paywalls nudge too few people).
  • Efficiency of the check-out (most news sites underperform vs. e-retailers).
  • Retention (part of the price, the key variable of the subscriber’s lifetime value).

Q: What content is most popular in selling digital subscriptions?

A: Our members report that, in general, journalism sells.

While news is a commodity available for free and everywhere, journalism as a service is not. Publishers differentiate from free resources by emphasising what difference applying journalism makes to news — verification, witnessing, investigating, sense making.

Having said that, studies on content read on a path to conversion show that heavy readers consume commodity or short news, too; they just don’t convert on those articles.

My research with Cxense for the Reuters Institute showed no topics were universally converting in Canada and in Norway.

Individual publishers though find patterns by reviewing what topics engage segments of users. For example, they see differences in interests between subscribers and non-subscribers, or between young and old readers.

They use content reviews to optimise the portfolio or distribution — they publish or promote more stories that engage, convert to a registration or a subscription. INMA published case studies from a number of members: Amedia in Norway, Funke in Germany, and The Wall Street Journal in the United States.

Some publishers automate this review process, for example, The Globe and Mail in Canada scores its content based on business value (for advertising and for subscriptions) and automatically curates articles on its pages, in apps, and in social media channels. 

What’s your question? E-mail me at 

About Greg Piechota

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