Subscription growth vs revenue growth: It matters what you measure

By Greg Piechota


Oxford, United Kingdom


Half of news executives told INMA they prioritised the revenue growth from subscriptions over the volume growth in 2024. They might reconsider when they see how this strategy is playing out for news brands in North and South America.

This is based on a survey of 282 attendees of the recent INMA Media Subscriptions Summit in New York (109 answered this particular question live at the summit).

  • 35% news executives said they were focused on the subscription volume growth in 2024. 

  • 33% said they focused on total revenue growth and further 18% on ARPU/LTV growth. ARPU stands for average revenue per subscriber and LTV for subscriber lifetime value.

Balancing volume vs. revenue growth is believed to be one of the hardest strategic choices subscription executives make, as Hannah Yang of The New York Times told INMA last year.

Myths about the news market

When deciding on priorities, executives usually consider multiple factors: the market opportunity, a company’s financial position and goals, performance of advertising and other business lines, maturity of their capabilities.

This is what a rational school of strategy teaches. What if the irrational plays the role, too?

An INMA survey at the Media Subscription Summit showed that perceptions about the market might indeed cloud executives’ judgement (based on 120 answers):

  • Subscription fatigue: 15% said consumer fatigue with subscriptions was their main challenge in 2024, while the INMA Subscription Benchmarks showed a median news brand worldwide has nearly tripled the total number of digital-only subscriptions since 2019, doubled sales per 1 million users, and kept churn rates below 5%. No sign of any subscription fatigue in the global data.

  • Market ceiling: 11% struggle with an internal pessimism about subscription ceiling, while a median market penetration rate for digital-only subscriptions is only 0.9% for national brands and 2% for regional brands (subscriptions vs. households). This is a fraction of the historic penetration of print newspapers or magazines or today’s streaming services. Don’t we need to think bigger?

  • News avoidance: 9% said consumer avoidance of news was their main challenge, while the latest academic studies showed news avoiders are off-target for most subscription efforts, as they tend to be less educated, lower socio-economic status, less interested in politics, and indifferent to news brands. So why would you prioritise this hard-to-reach segment at this early stage of the product development? 

How perception influences strategy

“Beliefs, values, and emotions are part of an organisation’s social architecture. They exert tremendous influence on day-to-day, minute-by-minute behaviour, let alone what strategic choices are made,” wrote professor Lucy Küng in the 2024 edition of her book Strategic Management in the Media.

Let’s consider the concern around hitting a market ceiling and the implications of this belief for a publisher’s strategy. 

  • If you believe that 1% or 2% household penetration is the peak, then it means you believe digital subscriptions are the mature market, you can only grow the volume by convincing customers of your competitors to switch, and you increase prices for your current customers to maximise revenue and profits.

  • At the same time, if you believe that you’re only 1% done and the market is at its infancy, you’d better focus on maximising the market share, you promote trial, and price for penetration. You will perhaps increase prices or offer upgrades for the current subscribers, but your focus is still on attracting the new ones.

This is based on academic theory of the product category life cycle. And here is how the executives’ beliefs influence their strategy in practice.

The revenue play in the Americas

In the past two years, news publishers in North America and South America clearly prioritised digital subscription revenue growth over volume. 

This is based on INMA Subscription Benchmarks, an ongoing study of performance of 234 news brands internationally, of which 67 are published in the Americas, predominantly in the U.S. and Canada:

  • Brands in the Americas raised prices — a median monthly ARPU increased 30% — and this strangled the volume growth. 

  • The revenue-first strategy met its goal — a median brand in the Americas nearly quadrupled the total revenue vs. Q1 2019, while only doubling the volume of digital-only subscriptions. 

  • Interestingly though the growth in revenue was only slightly faster than their median global peer, and it also led to unintended consequences. 

  • A halt in digital subscriptions combined with a continued decline in print (a worldwide phenomenon) resulted in a steep loss of market share for a median brand in the Americas — measured by the total number of paid relationships (print and online) — while their peers worldwide kept the market share.

At the INMA summit in New York, my call to publishers was: “There is no [...] ceiling! As an industry, we are only 1% done.” I might have been emotional, but the call was based on evidence.

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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