New INMA research reveals winning subscription strategies, new benchmarking service

By Greg Piechota

INMA

Oxford, United Kingdom

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Hello! This is Readers First, a newsletter for INMA members on reader revenue innovation. I am INMA’s researcher-in-residence. E-mail me at: greg.piechota@inma.org

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ANALYSIS: Benchmarks reveal winning strategies of the fastest growing news brands in subscriptions

Since 2019, the top 25% news brands grew their digital subscription base seven times faster than the bottom 50%, and they grew digital subscription revenue three times faster, a new INMA study shows.

This is based on data of 102 national and regional news brands across the world, collected in the new INMA programme called Subscription Benchmarking Service

The analysis covers the development of digital-only subscription of 30 INMA corporate members from 2019 to 2021.

In a nutshell:

  • 60% of the fastest growing brands are regional or metropolitan, and 40% are national. 

  • They seem to have strong brands and reputations in breaking news.

  • They have tighter paywalls than others.

  • They offer subscriptions at a discount and have very efficient check-out flows.

  • They see a lower ARPU and higher churn than other brands, but they add so many new subscribers that make more revenue anyway.

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Who is growing the fastest? We segmented the 102 brands by the growth rate of digital subscriptions in the past three years and looked into the characteristics of the brands in the upper quartile.

  • 60% of the fastest growing brands are regional or metropolitan, and 40% are national. This is debunking a myth that only big, national brands succeed in digital subscriptions.

  • 73% of the fast growers are based in Europe and the rest in the Americas. Perhaps this just confirms that publishers and consumers in these two regions are further along in digital transformation than others.

  • 60% of the fast growers are three to six years in the market with online subscription. They are therefore rather mature, likely found the product-market fit already, and they are organisationally ready for scaling up. 

Anatomy of growth: We wanted to find out what the fast growers do differently than other publishers. Therefore, we studied differences in reader engagement and subscription metrics between the top 25% brands and those above the median, and in the bottom 50%.

  • The fast-growing news sites seem to have strong brands and reputations in breaking news, as they saw higher traffic spikes during the COVID pandemic and the 2020 U.S. presidential elections than others.

  • They have tighter paywalls than others, stopping six times more users than the bottom 50%. Their average paywall stop rate was 30%.

  • Interestingly, 40% of the fast growers have a hybrid paywall, targeting users based on both engagement (meter) and interests (freemium). Further 27% have a hard wall.

  • They also charge lower prices than others and have very efficient check-outs. They converted eight times more users at an average paid stop conversion rate of 0.36%. 

Price of the growth: Such fast growth comes with trade-offs. These brands trash the recommendations from the textbooks of customer relationship management, and optimise for the total revenue from subscribers rather than maximise individual customer lifetime value.

  • The fast growers see lower and decreasing average revenue per subscriber: Their monthly average revenue per subscriber (ARPU) is around half of what others enjoy.

  • They also see higher churn than other publishers: Their monthly churn for digital subscribers is around double of other brands.

  • In the end though, the 7.5 times higher spike in the online subscriptions sales volume led to 3.2 times higher total revenue growth rate.

Takeaways: This data set confirms earlier analyses of the growth patterns in the pandemic. The most successful brands broadened each stage of the reader funnel: attracted more people to the news sites, exposed more people to offers, and convinced more people to try a subscription. 

There’s no silver bullet here, as all news subscription fundamentals needed to come together to enable fast growth: a strong brand, engaging journalism, bold promotion, and efficient user experience.

This data set also explains the rising popularity of new subscription marketing tactics, best described as the cyclone. Publishers speed up the acquisition with tight paywalls and discounts, while delaying churn with long introductory trials. 

First observed in the United States in 2019, these tactics spread across the Atlantic to Europe and other regions. By February 2022, based on my research, most of the top 50 news subscription brands worldwide offered deeply discounted trials longer than three months. 

Interested in comparing your performance to similar brands internationally? Join the INMA Subscriptions Benchmarking Service.

NEW PROGRAMME: Introducing the INMA Subscription Benchmarking Service

After six months of testing with selected publishers, INMA extends an invite for a new digital performance benchmarking service to all INMA corporate members. 

This service is exclusive to INMA corporate members that publish at least one online news service and requires an additional subscription. 

The full service costs US$7,500 per year, per publisher. In 2022, a publisher can sign up multiple brands without extra costs.

In total, 102 national and regional brands from all over the world contributed the data to the service since the launch of the pilot in autumn 2021. That is 30 publishers from 19 countries in the Americas, Asia, Europe and Pacific.

Publishers were telling us for years: “Without benchmarks, running a business is like driving with your eyes closed.”

The INMA board of directors imagined a club within the club: an on-going, peer-to-peer, secure, and confidential exchange of data, allowing international comparisons and analyses, as well as networking. 

I lead this benchmarking programme in addition to the Readers First Initiative. 

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How does it work: Every quarter, INMA confidentially collects 20 data points on performance, calculates 34 KPIs, and slices them by cohorts: geography, maturity, target market, type of a paywall, etc.

The data is presented in an aggregated and anonymised way in the form of an online report (dashboard): 150+ charts and tables in 10 interactive tabs. 

Each brand has personalised scorecards on digital reader engagement, registration, and digital subscription, allowing comparisons to cohorts of similar brands and the top performers in each KPI. 

We partnered with Laboratorium EE, a Polish-Lithuanian research and software development company, to build the online report and assist in data collection, verification, and analysis.

During exclusive Webinars, we present in-depth analyses of trends, striking differences between cohorts and inspiring correlations. We also invite the best performers to share best practices. 

On request, we also connect publishers for one-to-one meetings to exchange ideas and experiences.

During individual briefings and ask-me-anything sessions with INMA analysts, we demonstrate how to use the benchmarks for gap and opportunity analyses, strategy and budget, and for planning new initiatives. 

What is different about it: We design this as a peer-to-peer exchange: low-tech but also low-cost. Participants are not locked-in into any hardware, software, nor consulting agreements.

We select comparable brands from across the world to ensure the value of benchmarks. We also limit participaction to news brands only.

The data-rich dashboard is an immediate deliverable, but equally valuable are actionable insights and best practices shared during Webinars curated by INMA.

We build a benchmarking community and not just a data product. We facilitate learning from each other. We save your time and money in finding expertise or peers.

Our customer success team and analysts assist in data collection, verification, and analysis. We build frameworks to help apply the insights.

Click here to learn more and apply to the INMA Subscription Benchmarking Service.

About this newsletter

Today’s newsletter is written by Greg Piechota, researcher-In-residence at INMA. Greg leads the Readers First Initiative at INMA aimed at sharing the best practices in growing online engagement and reader revenue. 

E-mail him at greg.piechota@inma.org with thoughts, suggestions, and questions. Sign up to the Readers First Slack channel for daily links.

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