Latest subscriber acquisition tactics as COVID-19 bumps traffic, conversions

By Grzegorz Piechota


Oxford, United Kingdom


Happy isolation! 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 “Covid-19 bump” in subscriptions continues

Last week, the online subscriptions to U.S. news sites continued to climb, up 73% compared to the pre-crisis period. The growth of the European sites, both legacy and digital-only brands, slowed down but still was 189% up vs. the January-February averages.

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

“A significant part of that volume increase in the E.U. is being driven by time-limited promotions,” observed Patrick Appel, director of research at Piano. “COVID-19 is surely making those promotions more effective, and this may well be a good time to run such promotions to draw in marginal customers who are suddenly highly engaged.”

2. ACQUISITION: One-third of news subscription leaders lowered the introductory price

After opening COVID-19 coverage to all readers, many leading brands are “filling the lake” with free or very cheap trial offers for new subscribers, an INMA study of 48 news sites with the largest number of online subscriptions worldwide found.

  • One-third of top publishers, or 16 out of 48, changed rules of their paywalls, unlocking some or all articles on the COVID-19 or excluded them from the meter, INMA observed in the weeks of March 16-29.
  • 42%, or 20 out of 48, changed the price of their online subscription in March vs. what was observed in January. Most brands lowered the price for their basic digital access or introduced new cheaper trial offers, while some actually increased the price.
  • For example, The New York Times did both — it lowered the introductory price offer displayed to new, anonymous users, from US$2/week to US$1/week for a year, but at the same time it increased the regular price that will kick off later from US$3.75/week to US$4.25/week.

Here’s an overview of the tactics observed among those with the discounted trials:

  • The introductory offers centred around the price of 1 — be it a dollar, a euro, or a Polish zloty — suggesting the main idea was to make the offer as broadly acceptable as possible, while allowing to capture payment data for the automated renewal and billing.
  • Most publishers offered discounted trials for one, two or three months; respectively, Gazeta Wyborcza in Poland, Le Figaro in France or La Repubblica in Italy did just that. The longest discounted trial observed was The New York Times with one year.
  • Some publishers, such as Dagens Nyheter in Sweden, lowered the barrier even further, offering a free trial for a month. They collected thorough personal data, including the government-issued social security number, as the requirement.
  • A number of publishers referred to the COVID-19 outbreak in their offer messaging: For example, La Nacion in Argentina called its offer “#Yomequedoencasa” (“I am staying at home”). Others emphasised not the product benefits to a subscriber, but broader benefits to the society, as, for example, did StarTribune in Minnesota, USA.

Interested in the tactics? I will share more insights from this study and the survey of INMA members this Wednesday, April 1, at 10:00 a.m. New York time at the INMA just-in-time online meetup. Register now for this Webinar.

3. CASE STUDY. The anatomy of one bump in Europe 

While the time-limited trial offers speed the acquisition, it is the existing readers that are more likely to subscribe — not the new ones most recently attracted by the COVID-19 coverage, an analysis of data supplied by Deep.BI suggests. 

The data set showed the unique visitor flows on a mid-sized European news site between January and March. The site had 3.38 million visitors in the week of March 22, of which 2.29 million were new.

  • Segmentation by engagement, based on RFV scoring, showed that most of the Engaged and Addicted users, or 702,000 in total, had been visiting the site already in January.
  • Historically, those segments had supplied the largest number of subscribers, or 57,000 out of 85,000.
  • The propensity model by Deep.BI also showed these two segments were most likely to subscribe in the near term, as 54% the Addicted users had a high propensity score and 41% of the Engaged.
  • A more detailed case study is available here

The findings confirm that reader engagement on news sites follows the characteristic of a ladder. Users gradually increase engagement until they reach the point in which they get so much value from the product that they are willing to pay for it. The ladder metaphor is widely supported by academic research

The implications for the publishing strategy are as follows:

  • The recent spike in online traffic to news sites is an opportunity to grow subscriptions, but it requires a differentiated approach to users depending on their past engagement.
  • Newly attracted visitors are the least likely to convert in the near term, and they should be subject to engagement tactics before an offer is made. The aims at this point are to establish a communication channel, educate about the product, and increase frequency of visits. E-mail newsletters are common and effective tools, as are registration walls offering access to more content, features such as personalised weather, ability to add comments, and save article bookmarks.
  • Engaged and Addicted visitors are the most likely to convert, and they may well respond to new trial offers. The effectiveness of the trials though should be evaluated based on not just the acquisition rate but the conversion to the full price. The INMA-Piano study of transactions of 300,000 news subscribers revealed 41% free trials failed to convert to the full price, a triple of a churn rate of regularly priced offers. Discounted trials churned at the rate 28.3% or double the regular churn. That means a publisher needs to sign up significantly more subscribers with a trial offer than without it to make a profit in the long run.

4. UPDATE: The Covid-19 coverage continues to generate one-third of article page views 

Readers interest in COVID-19 has probably peaked, but still it last week it generated 32% of all article page views on news sites worldwide, and readers spent 34% of the total time they were interacting with news on coronavirus content.

This is based on the Chartbeat’s analysis of 87 billion page views on 28 million articles posted on news Web sites in 70 countries.

  • In the week of March 23, news sites were still ramping up the number of articles on COVID-19, up to 86,000 per day. These articles received a similar proportion of all article page views and attention, but in terms of raw traffic the page views were down 6% and minutes — 4% vs. the previous week.
  • Google Search continued to drive an average of 500 million daily page views to news sites, a triple of the traffic referred in the first weeks of January. One-third of those page views went to the COVID-19 content. Facebook, on average, referred 230 million daily page views, of which around half led to the COVID-19 articles.
  • Other main referrers were Google News, Google Chrome Suggestions, Twitter, and Bing. Chartbeat noticed a week-to-week increase in traffic referred by aggregator apps such as Smart News. 

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 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.

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