Trial subscriptions drove the pandemic surge

By Grzegorz Piechota


Oxford, United Kingdom


News publishers that offered free and discounted trial subscriptions saw a significantly higher spike in new subscriptions starts during the pandemic than the publishers who did not.

This is based on the analysis of 284 news media sites using Piano business platform, prepared for the INMA Masterclass on Digital Subscriber Retention, starting this week.

  • Publishers with majority of the trial starts enjoyed 105% increase in monthly sales in March versus February, while the others sold just 32% more.
  • The difference was smaller, but still significant in April (108% increase vs. 61% increase) and in May (73% vs. 48%). 

INMA’s original research of the top-50 biggest subscription news brands showed one-third of them responded to the pandemic in March with aggressive pricing: They lowered the price of their basic digital access or introduced new cheaper trial offers.

  • For example, Dagens Nyheter in Sweden offered a free trial for one month and US$12.81 thereafter.
  • La Repubblica in Italy offered a trial of €1 per month for three months and €10 thereafter.
  • The New York Times in the United States offered a trial of US$1 per week for one year and US$4.25 thereafter. 

Although free and discounted trialists usually churn at a much higher rate than full rate subscribers, it seems the aggressive pricing might have actually paid out in the pandemic. “So far, cancellation rates are lower for monthly subscribers who converted during the pandemic,” commented Patrick Appel, director of research at Piano.

The churn rates for new subscribers acquired in March and April were on average 14% lower than the rates for the January-February cohorts. One hypothesis is the news cycle helped: The news on the pandemic and its consequences engaged readers making them less likely to cancel. 

Patrick Appel shared the latest retention benchmarks and trends from Piano on Tuesday, June 16, at the INMA Masterclass on Digital Subscriber Retention. You can still buy a ticket and participate live, or catch up later on-demand. 

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