Cracking the subscription growth code

By Greg Piechota


Oxford, United Kingdom


Today, I am revealing the secrets of the 25% fastest-growing subscription brands in 2023, and I am analysing the first results of super bundles.

If you have questions or suggestions, e-mail me at or meet me at the INMA World Congress of News Media in London in April.

Exclusive: winning strategies of the top-performing subscription brands

In 2023, some news brands have achieved impressive growth internationally while others have struggled to keep pace. What did the fast growers do differently?

By analysing data from the INMA Subscription Benchmarks, which include 234 news brands worldwide, we identified key strategies and tactics employed by the fastest-growing brands. 

I described this analysis in a new report for INMA “There Is No Subscription Ceiling for News Media,” released today.

The anatomy of a fast grower: To understand what sets the top performers apart, we first need to identify them. 

By excluding brands with fewer than 20,000 digital-only subscriptions and segmenting the remaining brands based on their subscription growth since Q4 2022, we can compare the top 25% (fast growers) with the bottom 25% (slow growers). 

The fast growers are predominantly national brands (56%), located in Europe/Middle East/Africa (86%), and operating in markets with at least 2 million households (62%). 

They also tend to have larger online audiences (72% have at least 4 million monthly users) and employ hard or freemium paywalls (75%).

In 2023, a median fast-growing brand increased the total number of digital-only subscriptions by 49%, while the median change for moderate-growing brands was 16%. The median slow grower actually fell 1%.

The subscription growth levers: The fast growers have clearly prioritised volume growth over revenue growth, focusing on acquiring a larger subscriber base that they can nurture and monetise over time.

The fast growers likely tightened their paywalls, exposing 40% more users to their subscription offers than the previous year.

This resulted in a 20% drop in online sessions, a steeper decline than in other segments. But they also saw 62% more new subscription starts.

Fast growers tend to have slightly lower ARPU than other segments; 36% see a monthly average revenue per digital-only subscription below US$6 (adjusted for the purchase power in respective countries).

Flipping the funnel for rapid conversion: Based on an INMA analysis, the fast growers have mastered the art of the “cyclone” strategy, which flips the traditional funnel model on its head. 

Instead of focusing on engagement before conversion, they prioritise swift conversion to enable deeper engagement down the line. 

By offering enticing introductory prices and trials, these brands rapidly expand their subscriber base, allowing consumers to experience the value of their journalism firsthand. As subscribers become more invested, they develop a willingness to pay higher prices, fueling long-term growth.

INMA has been observing the international diffusion of this strategy since 2019, when the first brands tested it in the United States, such as The Boston Globe and The New York Times. It has clearly played out well for some brands in 2023 despite a calmer news cycle.

Acquire with simple prices, retain with personalised ones: While fast growers achieved impressive subscription volume growth in 2023, they experienced slightly higher monthly churn rates (3.95% vs. 2.4% for slow growers).

Interestingly though, despite the lower ARPUs, the fast growers still have seen a higher total revenue growth than the slow growers (46% vs. 18%)

Over time, the “cyclone” adopters interviewed by INMA perfected risk mitigation by acquiring subscribers with simple offers and retaining them with personalised prices or bundles optimised for lifetime value. 

They found that new consumers exposed to limited choices are more likely to purchase and targeted offers perform better due to increased relevance. 

By leveraging their subscriber data, fast growers can tailor their retention strategies, including renewal prices, to individual subscribers’ engagement levels and price sensitivity, ensuring long-term growth.

This is an excerpt from my brand new INMA report, provocatively titled “There Is No Subscription Ceiling for News Media.” Click here to download the report. 

News publishers’ super bundles see massive demand, but user experience lags 

News publishers that packaged multiple newspapers, magazines, and apps into super bundles report impressive conversion rates from subscribers — but struggle to keep them.

This is based on interviews with executives and presentations of the world’s digital subscription bundling leaders, such as Amedia, Bonnier, DPG Media, Mediahuis, Ringier Axel Springer, Schibsted, and The New York Times.

For example, Bonnier’s Alexander Lydecker and Schibsted’s Tor Jacobsen spoke at the 2024 INMA Media Subscriptions Summit in New York in February. Amedia’s Gustaf Eriksson presented at the annual event of the Swedish Publishers’ Association in March.

Bundling multiple products and services is enabling top news publishers to address more user needs, increase revenue per subscriber, reduce churn, and potentially attract new customers. This approach mirrors the evolution of print newspapers in the 20th century.

Bundling up beyond news: Since the 2010s, The New York Times and other leading brands have been rapidly expanding their subscription offerings beyond just news to include games, lifestyle content, audio, and more. In 2020, The Times packaged its products as the “All Access” bundle.

As of the end of 2023, The Times’ bundle has driven 44% of their 9.7 million digital-only subscribers. Bundle customers generate, on average, US$12.13 in monthly revenue per user (ARPU), compared to US$10.38 for the news-only subscribers.

My review of the basic offers of the top 50 news brands in autumn 2023 found that almost all added non-news features, although most integrated the new benefits into news products rather than packaging standalone products.

In 2022, European publishing groups like Bonnier and Schibsted have launched “super bundles” with up to 100+ products spanning national and local news brands, podcasts, video streaming, language courses, ad-free experiences, and family plans.

Up to 53% of mature subscription brands’ customer bases are ready to upgrade to bundles, per publishers’ data that INMA reviewed. 

Other findings: 

  • The results are best when readers have opposite preferences for items in a bundle, e.g., politics and sports, or local and national news.

  • Users of multiple products are more engaged than single-product users, and they churn less (if they actually use those bundled products).

  • Bundle customers pay extra and generate higher ARPU. As bundles package products that already existed, most of the extra revenue contributes to profits.

Minimum viable bundles: Publishers admit though that many early bundle adopters are churning due to poor product-market fit — readers liked the idea of access to multiple products, but they could not find the content so they did not use it as expected.

The reason is the publishers offered their bundles as minimum viable products, with an e-mail newsletter as the only channel to curate content across brands. 

As publishers have seen impressive take rates, they are now improving the experience — adding buttons, boxes, and other cross-site recommendation mechanisms to their apps and Web sites.

Some publishers launched dedicated aggregator sites or apps.

The historical context: Bundling has long been a successful strategy in the media industry.

Print newspapers in the 20th century evolved from pure news products to include lifestyle and entertainment sections and more. 

A 1987 survey found that after local and national news, some of the most popular content in U.S. newspapers included sports, comics, advice columns, and crosswords.

Digital news bundles seem to be following a similar trajectory, expanding from core news products to encompass games, cooking, audio, product recommendations, and sports verticals.

Getting the product, technology, and organisational capabilities in place is key. Publishers that launch super bundles need to align or centralise brand and product management, and integrate tech stacks to allow single log-in and CRM.

Future of news subscription bundles: AI could be a game-changer in enabling truly personalised “Spotify for news” experiences.

Today, most publishers rely on mass curation and production to serve their audiences. Predictive AI enables greater personalisation of content feeds and recommendations, similarly to features users fallen in love with in Spotify or Netflix apps.

Based on surveys, 40% of music streaming users listen to playlists curated by algorithms, editors, or other listeners. Only 8% prefer to listen to albums as intended by music creators and publishers.

In the near future, generative AI could allow the creation of fully personalised content bundles tailored to each individual user's interests and preferences.

However, most news publishers are still in the early stages of building out their subscription offerings. 

Concerned about password sharing? Check the next Readers First Initiative’s Webinar on Wednesday, March 27, featuring colleagues from Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in Germany and Le Monde in France. 

About this newsletter

Today’s newsletter is written by Grzegorz “Greg” Piechota, INMA’s researcher-in-residence and lead for the Readers First Initiative. In his newsletters, Greg shares original research, analysis, and best practices in growing reader revenue.

E-mail Greg at, message him on Slack, or meet him in person at the INMA World Congress of News Media in London in April.

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