Research: Publisher strategies to keep readers post-pandemic

By Grzegorz Piechota


Oxford, United Kingdom


After opening COVID-19 coverage to all readers, many leading brands are “filling the lake” with free or very cheap trial offers for new subscribers, an INMA study of 48 news sites with the largest number of online subscriptions worldwide found.

  • One-third of top publishers, or 16 out of 48, changed rules of their paywalls, unlocking some or all articles on the COVID-19 or excluded them from the meter, INMA observed in the weeks of March 16-29.
  • 42%, or 20 out of 48, changed the price of their online subscription in March vs. what was observed in January. Most brands lowered the price for their basic digital access or introduced new cheaper trial offers, while some actually increased the price.
  • The New York Times did both: It lowered the introductory price offer displayed to new, anonymous users, from US$2/week to US$1/week for a year, but at the same time it increased the regular price that will kick off later from US$3.75/week to US$4.25/week.

Here’s an overview of the tactics observed among those with the discounted trials:

  • The introductory offers centred around the price of 1 — be it a dollar, a euro, or a Polish zloty — suggesting the main idea was to make the offer as broadly acceptable as possible, while allowing to capture payment data for the automated renewal and billing.
  • Most publishers offered discounted trials for one, two or three months; respectively, Gazeta Wyborcza in Poland, Le Figaro in France or La Repubblica in Italy did just that. The longest discounted trial observed was The New York Times with one year.
  • Some publishers, such as Dagens Nyheter in Sweden, lowered the barrier even further, offering a free trial for a month. They collected thorough personal data, including the government-issued social security number, as the requirement.
  • A number of publishers referred to the COVID-19 outbreak in their offer messaging: For example, La Nacion in Argentina called its offer “#Yomequedoencasa” (“I am staying at home”). Others emphasised not the product benefits to a subscriber, but broader benefits to the society, as, for example, did StarTribune in Minnesota, USA.

Readers interest in COVID-19 has probably peaked, but still it last week it generated 32% of all article page views on news sites worldwide, and readers spent 34% of the total time they were interacting with news on coronavirus content.

This is based on the Chartbeat’s analysis of 87 billion page views on 28 million articles posted on news Web sites in 70 countries.

  • In the week of March 23, news sites were still ramping up the number of articles on COVID-19, up to 86,000 per day. These articles received a similar proportion of all article page views and attention, but in terms of raw traffic the page views were down 6% and minutes — 4% vs. the previous week.
  • Google Search continued to drive an average of 500 million daily page views to news sites, a triple of the traffic referred in the first weeks of January. One-third of those page views went to the COVID-19 content. Facebook, on average, referred 230 million daily page views, of which around half led to the COVID-19 articles.
  • Other main referrers were Google News, Google Chrome Suggestions, Twitter, and Bing. Chartbeat noticed a week-to-week increase in traffic referred by aggregator apps such as Smart News. 

Interested in the tactics? I will share more insights from this study and the survey of INMA members this Wednesday, April 1, at 10:00 a.m. New York time at the INMA just-in-time online meetup. Register now for this Webinar. Subscribe to my weekly newsletter here.

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