Research: What the COVID-19 bump looks like

By Grzegorz Piechota


Oxford, United Kingdom


Last week, the online subscriptions to U.S. news sites continued to climb, up 73% compared to the pre-crisis period. The growth of the European sites, both legacy and digital-only brands, slowed down but still was 189% up vs. the January-February averages.

This is based on the transactional data of 295 paywalled news sites across the world, a courtesy of Piano, a digital business platform vendor.

“A significant part of that volume increase in the E.U. is being driven by time-limited promotions,” observed Patrick Appel, director of research at Piano. “COVID-19 is surely making those promotions more effective, and this may well be a good time to run such promotions to draw in marginal customers who are suddenly highly engaged.”

The anatomy of one bump in Europe 

While the time-limited trial offers speed the acquisition, it is the existing readers that are more likely to subscribe — not the new ones most recently attracted by the COVID-19 coverage, an analysis of data supplied by Deep.BI suggests. 

The data set showed the unique visitor flows on a mid-sized European news site between January and March. The site had 3.38 million visitors in the week of March 22, of which 2.29 million were new.

  • Segmentation by engagement, based on RFV scoring, showed that most of the Engaged and Addicted users, or 702,000 in total, had been visiting the site already in January.
  • Historically, those segments had supplied the largest number of subscribers, or 57,000 out of 85,000.
  • The propensity model by Deep.BI also showed these two segments were most likely to subscribe in the near term, as 54% the Addicted users had a high propensity score and 41% of the Engaged.
  • A more detailed case study is available here

The findings confirm that reader engagement on news sites follows the characteristic of a ladder. Users gradually increase engagement until they reach the point in which they get so much value from the product that they are willing to pay for it. The ladder metaphor is widely supported by academic research

What does this mean for publishing strategies?

The recent spike in online traffic to news sites is an opportunity to grow subscriptions, but it requires a differentiated approach to users depending on their past engagement.

Newly attracted visitors are the least likely to convert in the near term, and they should be subject to engagement tactics before an offer is made. The aims at this point are to establish a communication channel, educate about the product, and increase frequency of visits. E-mail newsletters are common and effective tools, as are registration walls offering access to more content, features such as personalised weather, ability to add comments, and save article bookmarks.

Engaged and Addicted visitors are the most likely to convert, and they may well respond to new trial offers. The effectiveness of the trials though should be evaluated based on not just the acquisition rate but the conversion to the full price. 

The INMA-Piano study of transactions of 300,000 news subscribers revealed 41% free trials failed to convert to the full price, a triple of a churn rate of regularly priced offers. Discounted trials churned at the rate 28.3% or double the regular churn. That means a publisher needs to sign up significantly more subscribers with a trial offer than without it to make a profit in the long run.

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