Research: Subscription starts are down but higher than pre-pandemic

By Grzegorz Piechota


Oxford, United Kingdom


Last week, in the eighth subsequent week after the COVID-related bump in online subscriptions started worldwide, new sales decreased by roughly 20% vs. the previous week, reported Piano, a publishing business platform, based on the statistics of 295 paywalled news sites in Europe and in the United States. 

  • In the week of April 26, new starts in Europe were up 78% in comparison to the weekly averages in January and February.
  • Sales in the United States were up 52% vs. pre-COVID averages. 

Advertising prices have gone down as the pandemic closed businesses across the world and many companies stopped to advertise. Is there an opportunity for news publishers with a budget to extend the COVID bump in traffic and subscriptions?

“Several verticals have cut down or halted an advertising spend: travel, hotels, real estate, sports, gambling, events, education. This has freed up a lot of ad inventory and cut down prices,” Kunle Campbell, an e-commerce consultant from Oxford, England, who spoke at the recent INMA Media Subscriptions Summit in New York, told me.

Data collected by Keywee, an U.S.-based social media agency working with news publishers, seems to confirm the insight:

  • The average cost per click for their clients’ lead ads on Facebook dived 30% in the second part of March vs. February, then rebounded. Still — based on my calculations‚ the average CPC were lower 7% lower in April than in March.
  • The average cost per mille (or thousand) views on Facebook fell, too, reached the bottom in the first week of April and then increased. Still the average CPM was lower 13% in April than in March.

“We’re in a new brand new territory,” wrote Mike Baumgarten of Keywee in his newsletter “Data Dive” in early April. By the end of the month, having observed the price slowly ramping up, he concluded: “The window for low-cost, large-scale user acquisition campaigns is beginning to close.” 

Individual INMA members I interviewed last week confirmed low prices posed an opportunity to extend the COVID-19 bump in traffic and online subscriptions.

“Ad-funded publishers cannot monetise the traffic they have already enjoyed due to the pandemic. So, there is no reason for them to advertise. For us, it’s a different game. We are like surfers who ride the wave,” said Jerzy Wójcik, publisher of Gazeta Wyborcza.

Most of this leading Polish newspaper’s revenue comes from readers — in print and online. In theory, the more readers it can lead to its news site, the more potential customers. As many advertisers avoid placing their ads against the COVID-related content, the best viewed inventory is actually free and inexpensive.

But does this strategy work in practice?

  • In March, Gazeta Wyborcza ramped up its advertising activity across the board, including its own company’s unsold inventory. The campaigns aimed at repositioning the newspaper as the “Daily Anti-virus Guide” (it’s an actual slogan) and to sell more online subscriptions.
  • The number of online users for surged from 3.7 million on average in the last week of February to 5.2 million in the last week of March. The number of pageviews surged from 19.9 million to 35.9 million, per Gemius/ PBI analytics.
  • Most importantly, the weekly conversions to paid subscriptions tripled. By the end of April, the publisher said, the newspaper gained 25,000 new customers and reached 245,000 digital-only subscribers. 

Banner image courtesy of Dean Moriarty from Pixabay.

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