Registration benchmarks, updates on COVID bump traffic and subscriptions

By Grzegorz Piechota


Oxford, United Kingdom


Hi! 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. THE BUMP: New subscription starts stabilised in Europe and in the U.S. 

Is it “the new normal?” Last week was another week of great performance of online subscription sales worldwide, reported Piano, a publishing business platform, based on the statistics of 295 paywalled news sites. 

  • In the week of April 19, sales in Europe were up 97% in comparison to the weekly averages in January and February. They have been stable around the 100%-increase level for the third consecutive week.
  • Sales in the United States were up 78% vs. pre-Covid averages. They have stabilised, too — for the second week, holding around the 80%-increase. 

Interested in the executive briefing on the bump and the best practices? Check the programme of the INMA Virtual World Congress, starting the next Tuesday on May 5. We talk reader revenue on Thursday, May 7. 

2. CASE STUDY: Anatomy of one bump in Europe revisited one month later uncovers a struggle 

On the surface, all is fine — the number of online users doubled in March and then by April it decreased just marginally. Drama, though, is hidden under the surface.

A month ago, we dived into the data of a mid-sized European news site, supplied by Deep.BI, an analytics company, and discovered the bump in online traffic and subscriptions were separate phenomena. It was the existing readers who were more likely to subscribe than the new ones attracted by the COVID-19 coverage.

Today, we revisit the data set and check what happened to the readers of the site between March and April. 

The publisher enjoyed an unprecedented surge in online traffic. The number of users almost doubled from 2.71 million in February to 5.09 million in March! In April, the traffic still is way above the pre-COVID levels — between April 13 and 23, it had 4.81 million users.

Together with Pawel Blazejewski, product manager at Deep.BI, we dive deeply into the data to analyse the segments of users defined by their engagement. Similarly to the industry leaders such as The Financial Times, this mid-sized publisher uses RFV scores to measure engagement of each and every user. RFV is a composite metric built on scoring Recency and Frequency of visits and Volume of pages viewed.

  • Firstly, we see the publisher has successfully engaged the heavy users, or those classified as “engaged” and “addicted.” These are the segments of users most likely to subscribe. Most of the current subscribers have been members of these two segments.
  • Then, secondly, we see a danger for the future acquisitions. As the new readers flooded the site, only a few engaged enough to become “light users.” In fact, the share of “light users” shrunk rapidly from 31% of all users in January to 19% in April. 

The data on the flows of users between segments over a month uncovers a struggle in engaging the new users attracted to the site during the COVID-19 pandemic.

  • We see 3.06 million potential customers visiting the site in March just once. They are so called “flybys,” of whom most are referred by search engines and social networks. Then we find that only 420,000 stuck to the next month.
  • What about 1.34 million “light users” from March? Almost half of them were gone a month later and did not return even once!
  • Had we visualised the segments as an engagement funnel, we would see a shape of an umbrella. Broad at the very top and then a narrow in the middle. 

Recommendation for the publisher? Focus on increasing the visit frequency and depth to deal with the bottleneck in the engagement funnel. Consider the following initiatives and tactics:

  • Audit the user experience on the site as the problem might be the way it works. For example, check and work the page load time.
  • Audit the performance and experiment with different calls to sign-up for push notifications or newsletters, which will let you to remind users about new content.
  • Audit the performance and experiment with content recommendations on article pages to improve the time spent and the number of pages viewed, in particular test different selections, formats, and positions.
  • Track and retarget “light users” with your best-read content and the most popular newsletters on social media and ad networks. 

3. BENCHMARKS: Compare benefits, flows with registration offers of the top 50 subscription news sites 

As news sites across the world are enjoying surges in demand, an increasing number of publishers are asking readers to register and log in.

There are so many benefits to a publisher, which can:

  • Finally understand behaviours of readers across devices and browsers.
  • Fit products better to the needs of readers.
  • Gain new channels to engage readers and drive conversions, such as e-mails.
  • Collect data useful to identify segments attractive for advertisers.

What are though the benefits to a reader?

Last year, I registered to 43 of the world’s top 50 news sites by the number of online subscribers (the other seven sites did not offer a free registration). Here’s what I saw: 

The leading publishers offer a range of benefits to the registered users, of which e-mail newsletters are the most popular.

They are followed by comments, bookmarks to articles, access to discounts, and personalised content recommendations.

A total of 14% of the publishers had registration walls that prompted users to register to continue reading for free, for example The New York Times and The Economist. 

The simplest registration flows asked just for one information — an e-mail address — or encouraged registering with a Google, Facebook, Amazon, or Apple account. The Washington Post had an outstandingly frictionless and elegant flow.

Many publishers though asked for more — passwords, name, gender — adding friction with every extra data point. Some publishers set the barrier of entry really high, asking personal questions such as the date of birth or details of the job position. Der Spiegel in Germany won the category of the most curious publishers, asking for 18 data points in total.

Privacy laws might have made half of the publishers ask for detailed consents, including marketing permissions and approvals of terms and conditions of use.

Half of publishers required some sort of verification, of which clicking a link in a confirmation e-mail was the most popular.

In the three months that followed registration, the 43 publishers sent me 265 e-mails, of which more than half offered me a paid subscription.

The other e-mails tried to engage me first — some publishers such as The Financial Times or Clarin in Argentina welcomed me dearly and educated about the brand, benefits of the product, and recommended content.

A median number of e-mails sent was six, the average was eight. One publisher in the United States spammed my e-mail box with 26 e-mails or two e-mails per week, of which 22 were subscription offers. It was The New Yorker. 

Thinking of registering and logging-in users? Join me and guest experts of Media 24 in South Africa, Ringier in Switzerland, and the Winnipeg Free Press in Canada at an online meet-up this Thursday, April 30. Register now. 

4. IDEAS. During the pandemic, publishers innovate with content and reader experiences

Do you sometimes feel you have coronavirus? With 1 million page views in a country of 5 million people, an online coronavirus symptom test has become a traffic success for Norwegian news site VG.

The test is based on the patient interview guidelines developed by the Swedish healthcare administration for the Stockholm region, and its quality is assured by the Norwegian Directorate of Health. The project illustrates how to reach new audiences, including migrants. Responding to the demand, VG has translated the test to nine languages spoken in Norway such as Arabic, Polish, Filipino, or Somali. Try the test here.  

Looking for a new idea for a podcast? Poland’s Gazeta Wyborcza made my weekend with its newly released soundtracks of rare wetland birds living in Biebrza, one of its natural reserves.

Staying at home for the past few weeks, I love to try to guess what is out there singing in the marshes. Is it a nightingale? Check for yourself.  

What has happened to your events during the lockdown? For some publishers, live events used to be million-dollar businesses with sponsors and ticket sales. For others, events were mostly channels to engage and reward readers. For The New York Times they were both.

When the United States went into the lockdown, The Times had no choice but to convert all its live events into online. Last week, it held 12 events on Zoom or up to three events in a day. The most popular topics: lifestyle, business, and science. Check the schedule for this week.

The Times plans to keep the events virtual until the end of June. What’s next? For something like our food festival, later this year, we’re thinking about how comfortable people will be in large settings,” said Sebastian Tomich, global head of advertising at The Times. Do we need to do a hybrid virtual and physical event?” 

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.

Banner image photo by bongkarn thanyakij from Pexels.

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