Research shows best practices in retention while COVID bump peaks again in U.S.

By Grzegorz Piechota


Oxford, United Kingdom


Good morning! This is Readers First, a newsletter for INMA members on reader revenue. I’m researcher-in-residence at INMA, working remotely from Oxford, England. E-mail me at:

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1. THE BUMP: The second peak of the COVID-19 bump in online subscriptions observed in the United States

Have you expected a drop in sales? Not yet. Last week online subscriptions performed very well and above the pre-COVID levels in both the United States and Europe, reported Piano, a publishing business platform that has supplied INMA with the weekly benchmarks on the bump since the start of the outbreak.

  • In the week of April 12, the second peak was actually observed in the United States, with the sales up 84% compared to the pre-crisis period. It increased from 69% up in the week of April 5.
  • For the U.S. publishers, the total sales in April is likely to be higher than in March, as the bump started there later than in Europe.
  • In Europe last week, the increase in sales was just marginal — from 101% the week before to 104% last week — but it should be considered a success considering the slowly declining interest in news about COVID-19.

“We seem to be moving sideways rather than dropping back to pre-COVID levels,” said Patrick Appel, director of research at Piano. “These increases may also have to do with publishers getting smarter about how to market subscriptions in this environment and putting a greater emphasis on reader revenue as advertising dollars disappear.”

At the same time, the total number of pageviews generated by COVID-19 coverage and time spent engaging with it were both down 17% compared to the previous week, reported Jill Nicholson of Chartbeat, an online analytics company.

  • Search traffic to the COVID-19 articles was down 20% and social referrals were down 15%. 
  • At the same time, the demand for other news remained strong — pageviews and engagement time to non-COVID content decreased just by 5%, suggesting the interest has been shifting to other developments, such as in the economy.
  • “Across the board, we’re about back to the coverage and traffic levels we were reporting for March 9, which was about a week before the network peak on March 16,” Nicholson said.

2. RETENTION: The best practices from non-news subscription companies

Having acquired thousands of new subscribers since the start of the pandemic, news publishers and other subscription businesses are energised to reduce churn.

A new survey of 435 subscription professionals by Brightback, a retention analytics company, showed that for 93% respondents, customer retention is just as or more important in 2020 than acquisition. Only 7% said acquisition is the priority.

  • The biggest challenge is that no single department is the clear owner of the retention. For 37% companies, the sales and marketing team owns retention. For 27% businesses, especially in the software-as-a-service space, it is customer service.
  • Among other challenges to improve retention, respondents cited: a lack of cohesive approaches to engage customers across departments, being unable to automate tailored outreach at the right time, a lack of predictive methods to identify who will cancel in the future, and not understanding why customers cancel.
  • When faced with a customer planning to cancel, the most popular tactics among the business-to-consumer companies were: discounts, options to downgrade, personalised offers based on the reason for cancellation, bundles and cross-selling promotions, options to pause or skip payment, and consultations with the customers and on-boarding services. 

3. READING. The dark side of loyalty, according to Robbie Baxter

“Many membership organisations cater so much to their current members that they forget to stay relevant for tomorrow’s members,” writes Robbie Kellman Baxter in her new book The Forever Transaction.

The author of the bestselling The Membership Economy dives into the pitfalls and challenges of membership businesses, such as newspapers, and religious congregations. She finds some surprisingly common patterns.

Long-time members are often engaged and vocal. They may also be increasingly influential, as they serve on advisory boards and governance roles in the non-profit sector. At the same time, employees of the membership companies often age with the customers.

“As a result, the organisation lacks a diversity of voices and continues to offer products, processes, and services aligned with the needs of the aging cohort,” writes Baxter. The downside is that these offerings are increasingly not relevant to new prospective customers.

Baxter studies the case of Amedia, Norway’s largest publisher of local news media. The company discovered one reason younger audiences weren’t subscribing and reading its titles had less to do with “Millennials don’t like news” and more with “Millennials don’t like how we’re doing news.” Most of articles were about older people, dealt with topics older people found interesting, and featured photos of older people.

“Amedia had been serving its existing subscribers so well that it was ignoring its future,” concludes Baxter, noting that Amedia used the research to refocus its editorial practices and attract a younger base of customers.

So how to stay young and fresh? Baxter offers a number of remedies.

  • Ensure new customer acquisitions outnumber those that leave. A churn rate that is higher than acquisitions means your relevance is shrinking.
  • Invest in onboarding your new members, as they know less about the offering and they may need guidance how to get the value quick.
  • Look beyond existing customers for quantitative and qualitative studies. “Loyal fans provide the melody, but you need to harmonise with the voices of ex-customers, prospective customers, and prospects that got away”.

Robbie Kellman Baxter is a guest speaker of the INMA Webinar series tomorrow (Wednesday, April 22). Register now.

4. CONTENT. The success of the infographics during the COVID-19 pandemic

While live blogs have been the best single performing editorial content formats during the pandemic, newsrooms have found success with other formats, too.

Live blogs made 39% of the top 100 list of best-performing articles across 700 publishers in 70 countries, per Chartbeat data, but they amassed 45% of total engagement time.

The second-best performing format was the infographic, as 8% of articles generated 12% of total engagement.

The Financial Times, The New York Times, The Times/The Sunday Times of London, and The Washington Post have all discovered “a real appetite” for visual storytelling using data, as demonstrated by record-breaking articles.

The Coronavirus Tracker,” an article with the charts showing the latest figures on the pandemic, has become FT’s “most viewed article of all time.”

Originally, as data visualisation journalist John Burn-Murdoch told the Press Gazette, the graph was meant to be one-off for a reporter who asked if he had any statistics showing how the UK looked in comparison to other countries. It was the strong reaction to the chart from readers and on social media that convinced FT to track the pandemic daily.

While 94% of content FT publishes is behind the hard paywall, the tracker page has been made available free to all visitors to demonstrate the qualities of the news brand’s journalism to new, prospective subscribers.

Heavily promoted on social media, the tracker page is full of calls to sign up for alerts and newsletters, and it contains links to other free, yet rare, articles from the FT, such as essays by famous writers Arundhati Roy or Yuval Noah Harari.

The FT reported 10-fold increase in trial subscriptions in March, although it did not share the exact numbers. At the end of 2019, the FT had 1.09 million paying subscribers, of which the majority were digital subscriptions.

About this newsletter

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

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