Research details winning strategies of the top-performing subscription brands

By Greg Piechota


Oxford, United Kingdom


In 2023, some news brands have achieved impressive growth internationally while others have struggled to keep pace. What did the fast growers do differently?

By analysing data from the INMA Subscription Benchmarks, which include 234 news brands worldwide, we identified key strategies and tactics employed by the fastest-growing brands. 

I described this analysis in a new report for INMA “There Is No Subscription Ceiling for News Media,” released today.

The anatomy of a fast grower

To understand what sets the top performers apart, we first need to identify them. 

By excluding brands with fewer than 20,000 digital-only subscriptions and segmenting the remaining brands based on their subscription growth since Q4 2022, we can compare the top 25% (fast growers) with the bottom 25% (slow growers). 

The fast growers are predominantly national brands (56%), located in Europe/Middle East/Africa (86%), and operating in markets with at least 2 million households (62%). 

They also tend to have larger online audiences (72% have at least 4 million monthly users) and employ hard or freemium paywalls (75%).

In 2023, a median fast-growing brand increased the total number of digital-only subscriptions by 49%, while the median change for moderate-growing brands was 16%. The median slow grower actually fell 1%.

The subscription growth levers

The fast growers have clearly prioritised volume growth over revenue growth, focusing on acquiring a larger subscriber base that they can nurture and monetise over time.

The fast growers likely tightened their paywalls, exposing 40% more users to their subscription offers than the previous year.

This resulted in a 20% drop in online sessions, a steeper decline than in other segments. But they also saw 62% more new subscription starts.

Fast growers tend to have slightly lower ARPU than other segments; 36% see a monthly average revenue per digital-only subscription below US$6 (adjusted for the purchase power in respective countries).

Flipping the funnel for rapid conversion

Based on an INMA analysis, the fast growers have mastered the art of the “cyclone” strategy, which flips the traditional funnel model on its head. 

Instead of focusing on engagement before conversion, they prioritise swift conversion to enable deeper engagement down the line. 

By offering enticing introductory prices and trials, these brands rapidly expand their subscriber base, allowing consumers to experience the value of their journalism firsthand. As subscribers become more invested, they develop a willingness to pay higher prices, fueling long-term growth.

INMA has been observing the international diffusion of this strategy since 2019, when the first brands tested it in the United States, such as The Boston Globe and The New York Times. It has clearly played out well for some brands in 2023 despite a calmer news cycle.

Acquire with simple prices, retain with personalised ones

While fast growers achieved impressive subscription volume growth in 2023, they experienced slightly higher monthly churn rates (3.95% vs. 2.4% for slow growers).

Interestingly though, despite the lower ARPUs, the fast growers still have seen a higher total revenue growth than the slow growers (46% vs. 18%)

Over time, the “cyclone” adopters interviewed by INMA perfected risk mitigation by acquiring subscribers with simple offers and retaining them with personalised prices or bundles optimised for lifetime value. 

They found that new consumers exposed to limited choices are more likely to purchase and targeted offers perform better due to increased relevance. 

By leveraging their subscriber data, fast growers can tailor their retention strategies, including renewal prices, to individual subscribers’ engagement levels and price sensitivity, ensuring long-term growth.

This is an excerpt from my brand new INMA report, provocatively titled “There Is No Subscription Ceiling for News Media.” Click here to download the report. 

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

About Greg Piechota

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