Readers First agenda includes keeping subscription momentum in 2021

By Grzegorz Piechota


Oxford, United Kingdom


Happy New Year from Oxford! This is Readers First, a newsletter for INMA members on reader revenue innovation and part of the INMA Readers First Initiative. I am INMA’s researcher-in-residence. E-mail me at: 

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NOTE TO MEMBERS: Agenda for the Readers First Initiative in 2021

Benchmarking the state of online reader revenue after the COVID Year, ways to retain the gained subscribers, and finding new avenues for growth will be the key research areas for the INMA Readers First Initiative this year. 

Amid the global pandemic, demand for news soared last year. Audiences turned to trusted brands, and many more chose to pay for online media. In a few months, publishers made a few years-worth of progress in their reader revenue business.

I followed these developments, benchmarked the gains, and shared best practices with you in 49 blog posts at, 12 meet-ups, nine newsletters, four master classes, and a report on the COVID bump.

This year’s focus: News executives consider subscription the most important revenue stream in 2021, ahead of ads for the first time, found Reuters Institute in its annual survey.

I am planning to help you benchmark the gains of the COVID Year, aggregate the lessons learnt in acquisition, retention, and subscriber experience, and build a toolkit for the key issues on hand:

  • How to keep the new subscribers engaged while the lockdowns wear out us and them.
  • Where to find new sources of growth to keep the momentum in 2021.
  • And how to boost our reader revenues to fill the gaps from demolished business lines, such as print advertising or live events.

Based on your feedback and requests to INMA, I am going to explore why subscription leaders are moving their focus away from heavy-reading subscribers to the light-reading. How do we reinvent news experiences to make time with news well spent? How do we get smarter in pricing and boost revenue? How do we scale with group subscriptions and partnerships? 

Deliverables: In 2021, I will curate the Media Subscriptions Summit in February, the Reader Engagement Master Class in April, the Subscriber Retention Accelerator in September, and the Acquisition Accelerator in November (for a full INMA calendar of events, check the site.)

Expect at least one written report in the first quarter, bi-monthly meet-ups starting in January, bi-weekly newsletters, and daily Slack updates.

INMA corporate members can also schedule a free private consultation with me. 

Is this the right agenda for 2021? What would you add or cancel? I appreciate your feedback. E-mail me at or Slack me

ALLIANCES: German publishers share costs of data science to drive reader revenue 

Eight German regional publishers teamed up to share audience data infrastructure, analytics tools, and insights to boost reader engagement and online subscriptions.

Working with Deutsche Presse-Agentur, a cooperative national German news agency, and Schickler, a management consultancy, they hoped to overcome the common blocks for growth, such as poor understanding of readers, data kept in silos, deficits in tools, capabilities, and skills.

Meinolf Ellers of DPA told INMA in an interview that collaboration let the independent publishers enjoy benefits of scale:

  • Lower the costs through sharing data infrastructure and development, and data science team.
  • Improve quality of insights by pooling larger data sets for analysis and for training algorithms.
  • Speed up learning thanks to experiments coordinated across news sites and shared results.

Launched in spring 2020 as a pilot, the initiative called DRIVE (for Digital Revenue Initiative) grew to eight publishers by the end of last year, including Aachener Zeitung, Mittelbayerischer Verlag, and Lensing Media. DPA hopes more publishers in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland will join in 2021. 

One warehouse, many users: Christoph Mayer of Schickler presented a technical and organisational set-up of the initiative to INMA:

  1. Publishers store their first-party data on users, content, and context of visits in a common data warehouse operated by the consultant.
  2. Data from different publishers is kept separate for business and legal reasons, for example, to stay compliant with privacy laws (GDPR).
  3. Analyses though, such as dashboards, reports, or models, can be developed just once and then made available to all.
  4. A steering committee formed by the publishers, DPA and Schickler prioritises analytics roadmap — hypotheses to be tested in experiments or algorithms to be trained.
  5. The participants share the insights and benchmark ways to implement them, such as changes in workflows, during regular meet-ups, on Slack, etc.

Tailoring to segments: One of the early insights, said Christoph Mayer, was that most readers were not engaged enough with editorial content to subscribe, and publishers needed to help them form a habit first before stopping them with a paywall. Publishers chose temporal metrics, such as active days and time spent reading, to guide their analyses.

For example, they segmented readers by engagement and reviewed demand and supply for editorial contents. A closer view into behaviours led to a discovery of a clear evening peak in usage on some sites. After sharing the insights, publishers brainstormed ways to recreate such a peak on other sites or further boost it by tailoring content and distribution channels to specific segments. 

“Newspapers can no longer afford the traditional ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach when they want to attract younger audiences who are used to the personalised services of Spotify, Netflix, Amazon, or Apple,” said Meinolf Ellers. “We are convinced that the gradual shift to personalisation is a must.”

Sharing algorithms and content: 

Therefore, the next steps for the DRIVE will be development of personalisation systems, such as personalised newsletters and content offers, individualised pricing and intelligent paywalls, explained Christoph Mayer.

“Segmentation by user groups, such as a young family, a sports fan, or local decision makers, can be an intermediate step to a personalisation,” explained Meinolf Ellers.

Publishers may though take their alliance beyond data and start pooling content, too, similarly to the Matchup initiative in the United States. This would make the offerings of regional sites richer and potentially more attractive to subscribers.

Inspired? Meinolf Ellers of DPA, Christoph Mayer of Schickler, and Manfred Sauerer of Mittelbayerische Zeitung will be guest speakers at the INMA Readers First online meet-up on Wednesday, January 20, at 10 a.m. New York time (4 p.m. in Berlin). INMA members can register for free.

ASK ME ANYTHING: Q&A about subscription success factors and content that sells

Every week, members reach out to INMA and me to help them find relevant research, case studies, or best practices in reader revenue. Here are some recent questions and answers. 

Q: In general, what are the most important factors for publishers to succeed in digital subscriptions?

A: In some markets, for example in Scandinavia, higher proportion of consumers pay for online news than elsewhere, according to annual surveys of the Reuters Institute.

I found this proportion correlates with the printed newspaper readership in the past, and my colleagues also saw it correlated with the proportion of payers for online video and audio.

On the news business level, based on the Piano benchmarks, the key factor appears to be time in market — the sooner one starts selling subscriptions, the sooner one learns how to do it.

In a recipe for reader revenue success, FT Strategies and other consultants often add to the list of ingredients: strategic alignment and collaboration (e.g., company-wide goals, multi-disciplinary teams), knowledge of the customer (e.g., research and data analytics), experimentation culture (e.g., hypothesis-driven, iterative development), putting your house’s tech and data in order.

On a news brand level, our members observed for example:

  • Brand awareness (direct visitors are found more likely to purchase).
  • Quality of the editorial output (e.g., measured by time spent or advocacy).
  • Composition of the audience (e.g., the share of frequent readers).
  • Exposition rate of offers (most paywalls nudge too few people).
  • Efficiency of the check-out (most news sites underperform vs. e-retailers).
  • Retention (part of the price, the key variable of the subscriber’s lifetime value).

Q: What content is most popular in selling digital subscriptions?

A: Our members report that, in general, journalism sells.

While news is a commodity available for free and everywhere, journalism as a service is not. Publishers differentiate from free resources by emphasising what difference applying journalism makes to news — verification, witnessing, investigating, sense making.

Having said that, studies on content read on a path to conversion show that heavy readers consume commodity or short news, too; they just don’t convert on those articles.

My research with Cxense for the Reuters Institute showed no topics were universally converting in Canada and in Norway.

Individual publishers though find patterns by reviewing what topics engage segments of users. For example, they see differences in interests between subscribers and non-subscribers, or between young and old readers.

They use content reviews to optimise the portfolio or distribution — they publish or promote more stories that engage, convert to a registration or a subscription. INMA published case studies from a number of members: Amedia in Norway, Funke in Germany, and The Wall Street Journal in the United States.

Some publishers automate this review process, for example, The Globe and Mail in Canada scores its content based on business value (for advertising and for subscriptions) and automatically curates articles on its pages, in apps, and in social media channels. 

What’s your question? E-mail me at 

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 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.

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