What are the benefits, risks of long trials?

By Greg Piechota


Oxford, United Kingdom


Almost half of the largest news subscription brands offered deeply discounted and extra-long trials this year, a new INMA study found.

This is based on a review of the top 50 international, national, and regional news Web sites across the world, ranked by the number of digital-only subscribers in 3Q 2021.

  • 68% or 34 of the 50 brands offered a trial in mid-February 2022.

  • Of those 68%, or 23 of the 34 brands with trials, offered the introductory prices for longer than three months.

  • Average trial length was 7.5 months, and the median was 9.25 months.

  • Short trials of up to three months were discounted at 76% on average, while the trials longer than three months were discounted at 52%.

This is another sign of a shift in news subscription pricing towards extra long and deeply discounted trials. The aims are speeding up the acquisition and easing retention to the full price.

But do long trials work? And how?

A new best practice

We first observed publishers switching from short to long trials in the United States in 2019, e.g., at The Boston Globe and The New York Times. 

This tactic has become the best kept secret of fast-growing brands during the COVID pandemic and led to outstanding results identified by the INMA Subscription Benchmarking Service.

Our new study confirmed the new tactic has become common among the world’s leading brands. For example, Bild in Germany (593,000 digital-only subscribers) adopted introductory pricing after a series of rigorous data-informed experiments. 

At the INMA Media Subscription Summit in February, Bild’s Daniel Mussinghoff described the results of testing different combinations of prices and trial lengths:

  • Baseline offer of 1-month trial: e.g., €0.99 for one month and then €4.99 per month.

  • 4-months-long trial: e.g., €4 for four months.

  • Permanent discount: e.g., €2 per month.

  • Introductory price of 50% off the first year: e.g., €3.99 per month for a year, and then €7.99 per month.

Bild evaluated the results analysing not only the impact on conversions for each cohort but also retention after the first month and 13th month. It looked at the cohort’s length of the average relationship and impact on total revenue.

According to Mussinghoff, the long and discounted trial in the end generated the highest revenue, attracting many more customers than the baseline offer and retaining them at a higher rate to the new, full price.

The conditions for the cyclone

Bild and other publishers reimagined a traditional subscription funnel, in which a publisher attracts readers to a Web site and engages them gradually, hoping this higher engagement will result in the sale.

The new approach works more like a cyclone, in which a publisher stops readers soon with a tight paywall and sells quickly with a very attractive offer. Then it engages subscribers during a long trial, aimed at retaining them to the full price at a higher rate.

Studies (e.g., by Mather Economics) showed long-time subscribers are less price sensitive than new ones. This suggests upgrading a tenured subscriber to a higher price can be easier than acquiring a new subscriber at that high price.

The cyclone model might work best for brands with established subscription programmes, such as Bild or The New York Times, which had converted the heavy users already and most new buyers are light users anyway. 

The casual readers tend to visit news sites more often during big news events, such as a pandemic outbreak, U.S. presidential elections, or a war in Ukraine. This helps explain global spikes in demand for news and subscriptions in the past three years.

To speed the acquisition, brands simplify their offers. For example, Bild slimmed down its product line from multiple packages (e.g., the pricing textbook’s suite of the “good,” “better,” or “best” offers) to just one. It got rid of all the add-ons at the acquisition stage. It offers add-ons later.

“We found that it’s best to sell with one price but retain with many,” said Mussinghoff at the INMA summit.

Previous studies (e.g., by Piano) showed lower prices lead to more conversions but may also result in lower retention, as many of the new customers are less engaged. This suggests brands need to invest in robust onboarding of new subscribers as well as value nurturing and retention programmes. The length of a trial matters: The longer the trial, the longer runway to engage the new subscribers.

In the end, to succeed, brands need to acquire many more new subscribers than with the baseline offer — to offset the risk of the higher churn and lower ARPUs.

Tactics for a price-driven industry

In general, media subscribers are highly price sensitive, academic and business researchers find.

Authors of a recent paper in the Applied Marketing Analytics journal, Natasha Fosker and Benny Cheung, described a study of 1,384 U.K. adult consumers of different subscription services — from Spotify to Netflix, from food delivery to gyms and beauty product boxes.

In general, they found price a dominant driver of choice across all subscription markets. 

They analysed in-depth the influence of different pricing tactics on purchase likelihood and Net Promoter Score as a proxy for retention.

They found permanent price reductions, free trials and initial discounts, and monthly plans that “you can cancel anytime” the biggest levers for both acquisition and retention in media services, such as Spotify and Netflix.

Interestingly, they saw loyalty and referral schemes having a positive impact, too, especially for retention. 

Fosker and Cheung have not studied news products, but perhaps their findings can inspire subscription strategists in news media.


How did we study news subscription offers of the top 50 news subscription brands? 

We collected basic, digital-only subscription offers available to new subscribers and new visitors of their Web sites. We used VPN services to access the websites from IP addresses in the brands’ home countries and cleared cookies. 

We focused on the recommended offers (e.g., “best value”) on landing pages available under the subscribe button on home pages. We avoided offers available in the ads on home pages or in the paywall messages.

The data was collected on February 12-14, 2022, so before the start of the recent Russian invasion on Ukraine. Some brands might have adjusted their pricing since then.

Greg’s Readers First newsletter is a public face of a revenue and media subscriptions initiative by INMA, outlined here. Subscribe here. 

About Greg Piechota

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