How to monetise the 98% of readers who don’t subscribe

By Grzegorz Piechota


Oxford, United Kingdom


I hope you’ve had a great start of 2019! This is Readers First, a monthly newsletter for INMA members on reader revenue innovation and part of INMA’s Readers First initiative

I’m Researcher-in-Residence at INMA. E-mail me at: or let’s meet on our Slack channel (sign up here). Our next online meet-up is today — Monday, January 28, at 10 a.m. New York time or 4 p.m. Berlin time (register now).

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1. PRICING STRATEGY. What is the market opportunity for micropayments and aggregated bundles in online news?

The insight: With online subscriptions, news publishers pursue the most profitable segments of readers. The leaders, such as The New York Times, convert 2% of all unique visitors. How do you monetise the less profitable but more populous segments? Consider other pricing models. 

Personalising prices: In general, we expect direct-to-consumer subscriptions to be more profitable per customer than other pricing models.

  • The reason: Lifetime value depends on a high purchase frequency and money spent. We assume the frequency is driven by a superior experience in a direct channel. And the preference for the direct channel is what lets companies charge higher prices.
  • After exhausting the most profitable segment, publishers usually lure new subscribers with discounts, cheap entry-level products or extra values such as loyalty clubs. Such readers are expected to be less profitable due to a lower revenue or a higher acquisition and retain costs.

Bundling and unbundling: In the recent weeks, I interviewed a number of vendors who try to expand the paid content market with “à la carte” pricing and “all-in-one” cross-media bundles. Some experiment with advertising walls or data walls as alternatives to paywalls.

  • Initiatives offering “à la carte” pricing models, such as UK-based Agate and German LaterPay, offer unbundled content to news consumers who refuse to subscribe. Their biggest challenge is how to transact micropayments in a seamless — and yet still profitable — way. They solve it by offering wallets topped up before the reading (Agate) or sometime later (LaterPay), so a reader doesn’t need to draw her credit card whenever she buys an article for US$0.50.
  • Initiatives offering “all-in-one” bundles, such as Canadian PressReader and U.S.-based Texture, sell access to aggregated content from multiple publishers on their own destination site or app, offering a unified experience. Their biggest challenge is attracting people to their platforms. They solve it by selling group access to companies such as airlines or hotels (in case of PressReader) and by teaming up with tech companies with a large instalment base such as Apple (in case of Texture).
  • Some initiatives combine the approaches. For example, Dutch Blendle is a destination site but it sells “à la carte” too. PressReader offers e-replica tools to publishers who wish to sell the product on their sites.

Not only cash: Some pricing innovators let readers pay using currencies other than U.S. dollars or euros, for example, with attention and data. U.S. start-up Invisibly tests a digital wallet that can be topped-up with cash, similarly to Agate and LaterPay, but users can also watch video ads and earn subsidized access to content. Ad walls are offered by AdQuesto, a Polish start-up, too. Other ideas: Registration or survey walls let users pay with personal data (e.g., French Poool). 

Sizing the opportunities: The target segment for news subscriptions are frequent visitors with a high affinity to a news Web site, as they demonstrate the highest willingness to pay. Across users of 50,000 news Web sites in the Chartbeat’s network, there are 18% of such users. What about others?

  • I segment the market of online news users according to the users’ frequency of visits to news sites and the affinity to visit particular news Web sites directly. These are my proxies to the attributes of profitable readers.
  • I use the frequency of visits during a week because a number of studies, including mine with Cxense, find it correlates with the propensity to subscribe. In general, only 40% of users return to the news site in the next week.
  • I measure the affinity to news brands by the source of their visits. In my studies with Chartbeat, I find that direct visits correlate with the frequency. They also indicate a reader’s preference to experience content on a particular site. Direct visits include visits via organic search, links in e-mail newsletters and mobile alerts. In general, 45% of all visits to news sites are direct.
  • I estimate the market’s and each segment’s size based on the Chartbeat’s data of 50,000 news Web sites worldwide (data for 2018). Share of direct visits and share of visitors making two or more visits in a week can be different for each news site. Do your segmentation based on the proprietary data. 

The challenge: To avoid cannibalisation, or selling a one-day pass to a likely subscriber, the success or failure of the variable pricing strategy will likely depend on whether publishers can score visitors based on their behaviour or other variables, and present them with customised offers so a likely subscriber won’t even be offered a day pass.

Want to learn more? Meet founders of Invisibly, LaterPay, Inkl, and others on stage of the upcoming INMA Media Subscriptions Summit in Stockholm on March 21-22.

2. HACKING GROWTH. Marketing alone won’t deliver on user engagement or other metrics.

What’s new: As digital news products are more complex than the print ones, news publishers find that growth requires joint effort of the newsroom, product, and marketing. 

Breaking silos: In my interviews across the world, I hear publishers often find traditional division of functions between editorial, product/tech and marketing create “no man’s land,” or areas of activities that nobody feels actually responsible for. Silos lead to insufficient market-product fit and that’s a barrier to grow the business. 

The rise of growth managers: Some publishers appoint high-level managers to lead the process. For example, The New York Times has a head of subscription growth position at a rank of senior vice president. Hannah Yang leads cross-functional teams to accelerate digital subscription growth in the United States and internationally. 

Growth is a process, not a function: The know-how comes from tech companies where growth hacking is a name for an agile development practices adopted for digital marketing. Cross-functional teams focus on improving the defined metric by a series of experiments, documenting, and sharing the results. 

North Star metric: Some publishers focus their entire company on one metric. For example, Financial Times uses RFV, which stands for Recency-Frequency-Volume. That score assigned to readers correlates with propensity to subscribe and profits. In its growth efforts, as the FT’s Chief Product Officer Gadi Lahav explained to me, FT breaks down RFV to actionable sub-metrics such as frequency. In such a case, the experiments focus on increasing the number of active days in a set period. 

Bottom line: Practitioners claim eight in 10 experiments fail. You can though learn as much from the successful experiments as from the failed ones. A debrief after each test is a must. 

Meet the growth theorists and hackers: Professor Christopher Bones, author of Leading Digital Strategy and Optimising Digital Strategy, is a keynote speaker at the INMA Media Subscriptions Summit in Stockholm in March 21-22. He will be joined by Andiara Petterle, vice president/product and operations at Grupo RBS in Brazil, and Marc Isler, chief revenue officer/digital paid media at Tamedia in Switzerland. 

Recommended readings:

3. ENGAGEMENT. How Zero Hora activates its readers with push notifications.

The next big thing: An old-fashioned e-mail newsletter has become the cornerstone of reader engagement for many publishers. Check out push notifications. For this Brazilian news site, traffic from notifications is already almost as big as from Facebook. 

Inspired by the meet-up: At the last online meet-up of the INMA Readers First community, we discussed how newsletters can be used to activate readers every day. Sabrina Passos, then at the Zero Hora, a news brand in Brazil’s Porto Allegre, said: “Here, push notifications are a huge deal.” I followed up. 

The scale: As of the end of 2018, 20% of Zero Hora’s monthly users, 2.4 million, signed up for push notifications in the app or on a desktop site. Editors of Zero Hora send a push every 45 minutes, and more often if there’s breaking news. This sums up to around 65 pushes each day. 

The result: Push notifications generate around 100,000 visits per day, and this is close to the visits referred from Facebook (Zero Hora’s Page enjoys more than 2 million Facebook fans and the media company posts there every 20 minutes).

Mobile, personal, and direct: Push notifications share many attributes that made e-mail newsletters so useful for driving engagement metrics, such as frequency of visits:

  • Notifications can be both desktop and mobile, and that means your reader is always near.
  • It’s a direct channel. There are no algorithms that filter what and when users see.
  • It’s personal, as there is no more personal device than a mobile and a format as a text message.
  • It’s easy to use. We don’t need to educate readers how to set it up, benefit, etc.
  • It can be used for brand awareness, driving frequency of visits or just traffic, as well as ad revenue with sponsored notifications (that Zero Hora has already started to sell). 

Interested to learn the full story? Check Sabrina’s blog post

Do you have a case study to share with your peers who read this newsletter? E-mail me: or join our daily exchange on Slack.

4. LETTER FROM THE ROAD: Are digital platforms helpful in the transformation from ads to reader revenue?

All over the world, governments, parliaments, and regulators have been increasing pressure on the tech companies to fight disinformation, promote journalism, and participate in funding it. In response, platforms such as Amazon, Apple, Google, and Facebook have launched a number of initiatives that aim to help publishers to monetise content with digital advertising or subscriptions. Are they any successful?

“The monetary benefits of digital subscription services offered via platforms are still unproven,” said Dr. Merja Myllylahti, a research fellow at Auckland University of Technology, at an academic conference, Behind the Paywall, organised earlier this month in Gothenburg, Sweden.

Dr. Myllylahti is a leading researcher of the economics of attention and she has been studying the relationship of the news media and platforms for years. By the way, she regularly blogs at INMA.

In the paper published in the Journal of Media Business Studies last October, Dr. Myllylahti reported that although 24% of news companies’ traffic in New Zealand came from social, Facebook and others brought only 0.03%-0.14% of their total revenue.

“Monetising audience attention on social media is clearly not working for news companies,” she wrote and urged: “I suggest that news companies urgently rethink their news distribution strategies.”

In her preliminary investigations on subscription initiatives shared in Gothenburg, Dr. Myllylahti found that Facebook brought readers to the publishers’ funnel, but news companies reported lower conversion rates for those than from direct visitors. Still, converting users’ attention from platforms came with an additional cost, as publishers needed to use paid campaigns for targeted acquisition.

While academics discussed the rise of paywalls across the world, Bloomberg reported that Google considered pulling its Google News service from Europe. The reason is the EU new copyright directive that might give publishers the right to demand money for publishing snippets of articles in search results or feeds.

Stig Orskov, CEO of Jyllands-Posten/Politiken, who participated in the academic conference, made this comment: “Google News was never launched in Denmark. Today, Danish publishers have significantly larger share of direct traffic than their foreign peers and a strong foundation for a fast-growing digital subscription business.” 

Follow Dr. Myllylahti’s INMA blog. Read her commentary about the first in the world regulatory inquiry into the power of platforms in the media industry.

What’s your take on the platforms’ role in the transition to consumer revenue? Have you tried the subscription tools of Google or Facebook? E-mail: or share on Slack.

About this newsletter 

Today’s newsletter is written by Grzegorz (Greg) Piechota, Researcher-In-Residence at INMA, based in Oxford, England. Every month, I share here results of my original research, notes from visits to digital subscription leaders, reflections on talks at conferences, and my favourite readings. Previous editions are archived online: 

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


About Grzegorz Piechota

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