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News media can maximise digital subscription growth in 2024

By Greg Piechota

INMA

Oxford, United Kingdom

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Today, were looking at the burgeoning opportunity in digital news subscriptions — shaped by an eventful 2024 news cycle — and a few trends that might mess up your plans.

If you have questions or suggestions, e-mail me at greg.piechota@inma.org, meet online at my Webinar on January 31, or meet in person at the INMA Media Subscriptions Summit in New York in the last week of February.

The subscription opportunities ahead: how to capitalise on a strong news cycle in 2024

This year’s robust news cycle is not just a challenge for journalists; it’s an opportunity for news marketers to grow digital subscriptions and innovate.

2024 is rich in events that historically fueled the publics thirst for quality journalism: 

  • National elections: 76 countries are holding elections, impacting over 4 billion people, including in the European Union, India, and the United States. 

  • International conflicts: Tensions persist in the Middle East, Taiwan, and Ukraine.

  • Sports: Fans prepare for major events like the Olympics or European football championship.

  • Life and science: In other news, we live in the age defined by climate, obesity, space exploration, and Artificial Intelligence. 

Similar past events, like the 2016 and 2020 U.S. elections and the COVID-19 pandemic, significantly boosted demand for online news and subscriptions. In general, educated, affluent, and politically active consumers are more likely to pay for online news, per Reuters Institute.

INMA growth projections: A rich news year ahead is likely to accelerate the growth beyond the forecast from INMA Benchmarks. Based on data from 180 news brands internationally, we predict: 

  • Near-term growth: A median news brand is projected to see a 10% increase in both digital subscriber base and revenue in the first quarter of 2024 compared to 2023.

  • Year-end expectations: By the third quarter, these numbers are predicted to rise to 14% in subscriber volume and 13% in revenue vs. 1Q 2023.

  • Europe ahead: European brands might outperform their American and Asian counterparts, with a predicted 17% growth in subscription volumes.

  • National vs. regional: National brands are expected to grow faster than regional ones — 16% against 9%.

  • Big vs. small: Brands with the largest base (more than 100,000 digital subscriptions) are set to grow 7.5% and the smallest (below 7,500) — a whooping 26%. 

Treat these forecasts as a baseline. They are based on extrapolating historic data on starts, churn, and ARPU, and don’t account for the news cycle nor publishers’ plans. In 3Q 2023, a median error for predicted volumes was two percentage points and three for revenue.

The growth trajectory: INMA members have seen a steady rise in volume and revenue since 2019, and online subscription penetration remains lower than print newspapers historically.

  • Tripling figures: The total number of digital-only subscriptions and related revenue for a median brand have tripled since 2019, INMA Benchmarks show.

  • Elevated sales: In autumn 2023, a median news brand was selling more subscriptions per million users each month on a site than during the pandemic peak (327 vs. 251).

  • Increasing competition: More top news brands across the world charged for access in 2022 vs. 2020, indicating a growing market attracting new players, per INMA research.

  • Far from the ceiling: When comparing the proportion of people who subscribed to online news in 2023 vs. those who were buying print newspapers in 2002, I saw a 4.4 times growth opportunity across 35 countries. 

Winning strategies for 2024: Here is a recipe based on five years of my Readers First Initiative’s research and insights from INMA members:

  • Visibility and reach: Fast-growing brands during the pandemic observed higher spikes in online traffic than the slow-growing brands, pointing to strong brand awareness and distribution.

  • Effective paywalls: These brands also had tighter paywalls, combining exposure to offers with high conversion rates through accessible pricing and easy check-out.

  • Managing churn: Rapid growth led to increased churn rates. Brands which experienced a post-bump slump are focusing now on subscriber onboarding and value nurturing to mitigate the risk.

  • Balancing volume vs. value: Most of the top 50 brands acquire with simple and low prices but retain with multiple, personalised offers, and bundling non-news products.

  • The experimentation edge: The leaders like The New York Times highlight scaling experiments and agile, cross-disciplinary teams, which gave it a hockey stick-like growth curve.

What is beyond 2024? After the pandemic and 2020 U.S. elections engagement with news sites declined globally, returning to the 2019 levels. The lesson is: Whoever misses the 2024 flight is likely back to crawling in 2025.

Strategies to win the landmark year of 2024 will be the focus of INMA Readers First Webinar on January 31, with guest experts from Corriere della Sera of Italy and The Globe and Mail of Canada. Register today.

Navigating risks in digital news subscriptions: 3 negative trends will challenge news publishers in 2024

An AI content tsunami, the changing landscapes of social media and search, and economic pressures threaten to slow down the growth in digital news subscriptions in 2024.

As strong news cycles and positive long-term trends allow INMA to predict bright prospects for news subscriptions in 2024, it’s crucial to examine the emerging risks too.

Risk No. 1: AI content flood and misinformation. Newsrooms face a deluge of AI-generated content, including that from unreliable sources. Here is a journalistic and marketing problem: How to stand out?

  • AI tsunami: By the end of 2023, U.S.-based non-profit NewsGuard identified 623 sites with AI-written articles, some producing up to 1,200 articles daily, dwarfing traditional outlets like The New York Times, which publishes about 250 articles per day.

  • Quality vs. quantity: This influx risks polluting social media, search, and aggregators, lowering the overall Web content quality. Some experts predict lower quality might benefit news publishers in the long term, as frustrated users will see the value of trusted brands.

  • The cost of differentiation: Increased competition for attention necessitates distinct journalism and user experiences, requiring investment in newsroom, marketing, and product. Those who afford such investments are positioned for faster growth in 2024.

Risk No. 2: The shifting social and search landscape. Publishers aiming to reach casual readers during big news events face a decline in referrals from digital platforms which are the main getaway to news for those readers, per Reuters Institute surveys.

  • Declining traffic from social media: Chartbeat data shows a significant drop in referral traffic from Facebook (-48%), X (-27%), and Instagram (-10%) in 2023 vs. 2022.

  • Search traffic steady: Luckily, search traffic, including Google Discover, has been more or less stable, now accounting for 37% of overall traffic to news sites, per Baekdal analysis.

  • AI-driven search experiences: But the rise of AI-driven search providing direct answers instead of traditional link lists could disrupt the referral landscape.

  • Focus on direct channels: 77% of executives plan to invest more in direct channels, per Reuters Institute. The problem? Direct channels serve loyal users well but do not effectively reach new users, which are key to the 2024 growth.

  • Limited alternatives: Only 20% executives are shifting efforts to platforms like WhatsApp or YouTube, and 17% plan to increase marketing spend to promote their brands and generate new traffic.

Risk No. 3: Economic pressures. Rising living costs and inflation may make consumers more hesitant to subscribe or more likely to churn.

  • Subscription fatigue: Cost-of-living concerns are creating a cautious environment with surveys, such as by Zuora, revealing a proportion of consumers considers cancelling some subscriptions.

  • Churning toward disaster: Northwestern University saw a worrying increase in monthly churn rates of 107 U.S. newspapers, from 3% in 2021 to 5.5% in 2023.

  • Passing the churn peak: Data from INMA Benchmarks are less alarming. The median churn rate peaked in the Americas in 2Q 2022 (3.4%) and internationally in 1Q 2023 (4.1%), but has since declined to 3.25% in the Americas and 3.6% internationally.

  • Sector comparisons: News industry churn rates remain considerably lower than in other media sectors, such as video streaming, which has a 12-month retention rate of 45%, per Antenna, compared to 67% for a median news site.

  • Subscription affordability: Despite economic concerns, news subscriptions remain affordable with a median monthly ARPU of US$8.20, adjusted internationally, and low prices likely explain consistently elevated sales despite tighter household budgets.

How to mitigate the risks of 2024? Invest in differentiated journalism and user experience, grow brand awareness and distribution, and stay affordable.

Navigating the future of news subscriptions in the age of AI is the headline of the upcoming INMA Media Subscriptions Summit in New York in late February. Check the agenda and join to get a toolbox for growth in 2024 and beyond.

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 greg.piechota@inma.org, message him on Slack, or meet in person at the INMA Media Subscriptions Summit in New York in February.

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