Brace for the hard landing after COVID-19 bump in conversions, traffic

By Grzegorz Piechota


Oxford, United Kingdom


Happy Easter week! This is Readers First, a newsletter for INMA members on reader revenue. I’m Researcher-in-Residence at INMA. E-mail me at: 

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1. UPDATE: The peak of “COVID-19 bump” in subscriptions passed in Europe, while U.S. still climbing 

Last week, the sales of online subscriptions to U.S. news sites continued to climb and are now up 97% compared to the pre-crisis period. That’s up from 73% the week before.

The growth of the European sites, both legacy and digital-only brands, peaked in mid-March and last week it continued to slow down from 189% to 147% up vs. the January-February averages.

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

2. LESSON FROM THE PAST: What is going to happen after the bump?

News publishers should expect a deep drop in new subscription sales, even below the pre-COVID averages, suggests an analysis of the previous sales bumps by Mather Economics, a business consultancy.

“During and after high-interest news events such as natural disasters, elections, crimes, or dramatic sports events, we observed a similar pattern in the subscription sales,” said Matt Lindsay, president of Mather Economics.

Here is what his data team saw over and over:

  • The big news event attracted new readers to the news site (they filled the top of the purchase funnel), and it mobilised existing readers to visit more frequently and read more articles (the bottom of the funnel).
  • Many of the latter readers — who otherwise might wait weeks or months to purchase a subscription — decided to buy sooner. This is what made the sales to spike temporarily.
  • After converting those mobilised readers, the bottom of the funnel got empty. At the same time, the new readers were not engaged enough yet to purchase. And this is what made the sales to dive, after the bump was over.

“The high-interest news event speeds the acquisition, but that creates a gap in the bottom of the funnel,” explained Lindsay. 

In a detailed analysis published online, Mather’s Senior Director of Product Development Arvid Tchivzhel presented a data set from an U.S. news site as an example for the “Hard Landing” pattern.

  • The news site experienced a 250% increase in new subscriptions starts around the Super Bowl win for the local team. The Super Bowl is the annual championship game of the U.S. National Football League (NFL). It regularly scores record audiences on TV and other channels.
  • The bump in subscriptions started after playoff wins and lasted for two months, with the culmination during the February finale — the Super Bowl.
  • After the game the readers’ interest waned quickly and the news site saw a sudden drop in new subscription starts, even 50% below the pre-bump period.
  • The slow sales period lasted five long months, or until the summer, when the news site boosted daily starts with a month-long summer flash sale.

The hypothesis of the Hard Landing by Mather Economics’ data team might be supported by another study, of user flows at an European publisher, that we covered in the last week’s newsletter. It showed the COVID-19 bump most likely came from the mobilisation of already engaged readers. The new ones attracted to the site for the first time might convert too, but not in the near term. They need to engage first with the site’s content, and that typically took weeks or months.

“An average subscriber converts after being stopped and exposed the offer seven times,” said Lindsay, who recommended publishers to keep original journalism behind the paywall during a surge in demand and remove discounts. “You may reintroduce discounts right after the demand goes back to normal.” 

Want to learn how to keep the subscribers you had acquired during the bump? Join me at the just-in-time Readers First Meet-up: Subscriber Retention In the Age of the Downturn on Thursday, April 16. Sign up here for the Webinar.

3. SURVEY: INMA members expanded COVID-19 coverage, adjusted paywall rules, and tried to activate print readers online 

Twenty-nine news publishers that enjoyed an average bump of 198% in online subscription sales in March shared their best engagement tactics with INMA in a quick COVID-19 survey. I sent requests for data to the recipients of this newsletter and collected answers by e-mail from March 23 to April 6.

Here are the tactics grouped by the stage of the purchase funnel they address:

  • How to find and attract new readers who might become subscribers one day?
  • How to register the newcomers and engage them to increase the frequency of their visits and the number of articles read?
  • How to demonstrate them the value of subscription and convert them?
  • How to engage, nurture value, and retain them? 

Among other findings:

Bump range: Although the average bump in subscription observed was 198%, the range was pretty wide — from 15% to a whooping 900%. (I have interviewed the publisher with the highest bump and will soon publish the case study on

Online traffic: The sites in a sample observed an average 75% spike in the number of unique visitors and 92% spike in page views.

Lock or unlock? A total of 13 out of 29 surveyed publishers, or 45%, unlocked some or all their COVID-19 coverage for free to all readers. The rest kept their paywall intact. 

4. COVERAGE: Readers’ interest in COVID-19 articles wanes and people search for other topics 

Live blogs proved to be the top journalism format when the news of the global pandemic broke and readers tuned in for updates, Chartbeat’s analysis of the 100 most-engaging news stories published worldwide found.

Among the top 100 stories 39% were live blogs, and they attracted 45% of readers’ engagement time. Articles, the most popular news output, attracted only 35% of engagement. Additionally, infographics and longform journalism performed well. 

Previous research from Chartbeat, per Director of Customer Education Jill Nicholson, showed people engaged with different types of content depending on a platform:

  • On the news site’s homepage, breaking news updates and live blogs worked best.
  • In search, it was factual content, personally relevant information, interactives, and infographics.
  • In social, the best performing articles were human stories and emotional content.

In the week of March 30, traffic to COVID-19 articles went down significantly (-25% daily page views vs. the week before), and the share of page views generated by those articles was also down to 27% (from 31% the week before).

Overall, traffic and engagement time were down week over week, and COVID-19 articles were trending down much faster than other articles. The search traffic saw a steeper decline than social traffic.

“This pattern is potentially a signal that quarantine has become ‘the new normal,’ and readers are searching for less personally-relevant information,” reported Bonnie Ray, head of data science at Chartbeat, in a weekly update for INMA members.

About this newsletter 

Today’s newsletter is written by Grzegorz (Greg) Piechota, Researcher-in-Residence at INMA, based in Oxford, England. I share here results of my original research, notes from interviews with news publishers, reflections on my readings. Previous editions are archived online.

This newsletter is a public face of a revenue and media subscriptions initiative by INMA, outlined here. E-mail me at with thoughts, suggestions, and questions. Sign up to our Slack channel.

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