Media companies tout product features over content as subscription benefit

By Grzegorz Piechota


Oxford, United Kingdom


Hi! This is Readers First, a newsletter for INMA members on reader revenue innovation. I’m researcher-in-residence at INMA. E-mail me at:

Was this e-mail forwarded to you? Sign up to this newsletter.


1. VALUE PROPOSITION: The most frequent benefits of news subscriptions are product features 

Product features — such as apps, e-replicas of print edition, access to archives, or premium newsletters — are the most frequent benefits found in digital subscription offers in 33 countries. 

I analysed for INMA 224 value propositions of national news outlets selling subscriptions or memberships in 33 countries that include the biggest markets in Americas, Africa, Asia, Australia, and Europe. I collected the data in February 2020. 

This is my second study of subscription benefits across the world. The first one, which I did in 2018 for the Oxford’s Reuters Institute, included 128 national news outlets. 

The 2020 study shows publishers listed product features more frequently than editorial content benefits, while the opposite was observed in 2018.

  • Product features (such as apps, e-replicas, access to archives, newsletters, comments or puzzles) were listed as benefits of 86% basic digital subscriptions in 2020.
  • Content benefits (such as premium articles, or access to verticals, magazines, or multi-media) were listed by 76% of outlets in their offers.
  • 32% publishers listed non-news offers, such as discounts, gifts, contests or third-party subscriptions, as benefits.
  • 16% news sites offered a premium user experience, for example, no or limited ads on the site or in an app.
  • 11% outlets offered multi-user accounts, for example, ability to share a subscription or paywalled articles with family and friends. 

Among the product features, the most frequent by occurrence were mobile and tablet apps; 63% of 224 news outlets listed them as benefits of basic digital subscription.

  • Half, or 48%, of outlets offered e-replicas of print edition.
  • 23% listed premium newsletters as subscriber benefits.
  • 21% featured access to archives.
  • 10% emphasised community and social features, such as ability to add comments, access private groups on social media, etc.
  • 7% publishers included non-news features, such as puzzles, crosswords, and games.

2. PREMIUM CONTENT: In-house articles convert better than articles from news wires

While declining circulation and advertising revenue have led many news publishers to shrink their staff and rely more on content sourced from news wires, that content is found less effective in making people subscribe.

This is the conclusion of a new 2020 study by researchers of the Boston University’s Questrom School of Business. 

Academics analysed how the mix of in-house and wired stories impacted online readers’ decisions to subscribe at a large regional U.S. newspaper. The studied newspaper launched its paywall in 2017. The meter allowed non-subscribers to access up to 10 free articles per month.

During 12 months of analysed data, the newspaper published on its Web site, on average, 118 in-house articles and 153 wired stories a day. 

The researchers found in-house content was generally more effective than wired content at converting visitors to subscribers.

  • Specifically, publishing 10 more in-house articles a day could increase subscription rate by 15%.
  • On the other hand, publishing 10 more wired stories a day could decrease the subscription rate by 11%. 

“Our results speak to [broad] concern that by going digital and online, newspapers may lose their unique identity and once prominent status,” commented the authors of the study, Xiaoli Yang, Professor Nachiketa Sahoo, and Professor Timothy Simcoe. “We find that readers are still willing to pay for unique content that newspapers have to offer, which suggests that digital technologies do not redefine newspapers; their identity and status are built on the content they produce.” 

The academics also observed the impact of the content source on subscriptions varied by topic. 

  • In the three largest topic categories measured by content volume — general news, sports, and entertainment — the in-house content had positive effect on willingness to subscribe.
  • In contrast, wire news on these three topics had either no effect (sports, entertainment) or negative effect (general news).
  • Although wire content had an overall negative effect, wire business articles had a positive effect on subscription. “This may be a category where wire agencies have staff closer to the financial sector and therefore are able to provide coverages that the newspaper’s newsroom is unable to match,” commented the study’s authors.
  • Interestingly, neither in-house nor wire opinion pieces affected readers’ willingness to subscribe.

“Against the trend of tabloidization of news in some popular media, we find that readers still value many hard news and some in-house soft news,” observed the researchers. “The category level results suggest that newspapers should be strategic with their content sourcing decisions.”

3. PAYMENT FAILURES: Extending a digital subscription grace period and card retry cycle helps reduce passive churn

On average, every third digital subscriber lost by news publishers did not want to cancel. “Reducing system churn is a huge opportunity,” said Elaine Scott of Telegraph Media Group in the United Kingdom. 

Scott, who leads subscriber engagement and retention at the Telegraph, was a speaker at the recent INMA Master Class on Digital Subscriber Retention. Before joining the Telegraph, she worked on retention at UK’s largest video streaming and paid broadcasting companies, Now TV and Sky.

She used the term “system churn” to describe what others call “involuntary churn” or “passive churn.” Per Piano benchmarks, 35% of all news subscription churn is passive.

“Over half of your subscribers may not even realise there are issues [with payment] and do not want to cancel,” said Scott, referring to the results of the surveys of her newspaper churned subscribers. 

The reasons for the payment failures may range from subscribers forgetting to update card details, to lost or stolen cards, bank rejections, network errors, or subscribers exceeding credit limit. 

The company managed to reduce this type of churn significantly, by 10 percentage points, from January to May. “The first step to fight churn is to understand the make-up of your churn,” Scott advised. 

Here’s her step-by-step guide to reduce passive churn:

  • Building granular reporting, down to the level of credit card provider, was paramount to find the root of the problem. Credit card issues were the most frequent reason of passive churn at the Telegraph.
  • The newspaper reviewed subscriber journey and identified areas of opportunity to engage readers both before the potential system cancellation and afterwards, through on-site campaigns, e-mails and, contact centre calls.
  • Scott encouraged her peers at her master class also to use automated card updater tools.
  • The Telegraph also extended its grace period, or the time of the service after the due date, from four to 28 days, and reviewed its card retry cycle to try charging the card more times.
  • In a quick poll of the master class participants, INMA saw that almost half, or 44% of publishers, set the grace period at 14 days or fewer that might be too short to successfully save the subscriber.

Rethink your passive churn approach with insights from the Telegraph Media Group and other retention masters:  Buy a ticket to the INMA Master Class on Digital Subscriber Retention, watch all recordings, download presentations and additional reading materials. 

About this newsletter

Today’s newsletter is written by Grzegorz (Greg) Piechota, researcher-in-residence at INMA, based in Oxford, England. Here I share 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.

By continuing to browse or by clicking “ACCEPT,” you agree to the storing of cookies on your device to enhance your site experience. To learn more about how we use cookies, please see our privacy policy.