Research shows where the COVID-19 bump sits and how Facebook ads are faring

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. E-mail me at: 

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1. THE BUMP: New subscription starts down but still higher than before the pandemic

Last week, in the eighth subsequent week after the COVID-related bump in online subscriptions started worldwide, new sales decreased by roughly 20% vs. the previous week, reported Piano, a publishing business platform, based on the statistics of 295 paywalled news sites in Europe and in the United States. 

  • In the week of April 26, new starts in Europe were up 78% in comparison to the weekly averages in January and February.
  • Sales in the United States were up 52% vs. pre-COVID averages. 

2. MARKETING: Extend the bump by exploring opportunities of lower CPMs and CPCs on Facebook 

Advertising prices have gone down as the pandemic closed businesses across the world and many companies stopped to advertise. Is there an opportunity for news publishers with a budget to extend the COVID bump in traffic and subscriptions?

“Several verticals have cut down or halted an advertising spend: travel, hotels, real estate, sports, gambling, events, education. This has freed up a lot of ad inventory and cut down prices,” Kunle Campbell, an e-commerce consultant from Oxford, England, who spoke at the recent INMA Media Subscriptions Summit in New York, told me.

Data collected by Keywee, an U.S.-based social media agency working with news publishers, seems to confirm the insight:

  • The average cost per click for their clients’ lead ads on Facebook dived 30% in the second part of March vs. February, then rebounded. Still — based on my calculations‚ the average CPC were lower 7% lower in April than in March.
  • The average cost per mille (or thousand) views on Facebook fell, too, reached the bottom in the first week of April and then increased. Still the average CPM was lower 13% in April than in March.

“We’re in a new brand new territory,” wrote Mike Baumgarten of Keywee in his newsletter “Data Dive” in early April. By the end of the month, having observed the price slowly ramping up, he concluded: “The window for low-cost, large-scale user acquisition campaigns is beginning to close.” 

Individual INMA members I interviewed last week confirmed low prices posed an opportunity to extend the COVID-19 bump in traffic and online subscriptions.

“Ad-funded publishers cannot monetise the traffic they have already enjoyed due to the pandemic. So, there is no reason for them to advertise. For us, it’s a different game. We are like surfers who ride the wave,” said Jerzy Wójcik, publisher of Gazeta Wyborcza.

Most of this leading Polish newspaper’s revenue comes from readers — in print and online. In theory, the more readers it can lead to its news site, the more potential customers. As many advertisers avoid placing their ads against the COVID-related content, the best viewed inventory is actually free and inexpensive.

But does this strategy work in practice?

  • In March, Gazeta Wyborcza ramped up its advertising activity across the board, including its own company’s unsold inventory. The campaigns aimed at repositioning the newspaper as the “Daily Anti-virus Guide” (it’s an actual slogan) and to sell more online subscriptions.
  • The number of online users for surged from 3.7 million on average in the last week of February to 5.2 million in the last week of March. The number of pageviews surged from 19.9 million to 35.9 million, per Gemius/ PBI analytics.
  • Most importantly, the weekly conversions to paid subscriptions tripled. By the end of April, the publisher said, the newspaper gained 25,000 new customers and reached 245,000 digital-only subscribers. 

3. BENCHMARKS: See what the top 56 subscription news sites advertise on Facebook 

In the past 30 days, the top subscription news brands advertised on Facebook apps to drive readers to their content and features, as well as to drive sales and increase reach of branded content campaigns. 

This is based on my new study of advertising activity of 56 brands on Facebook, Instagram, and Facebook Messenger. Using Facebook’s archive called Ad Library, I retrieved 4,625 ad campaigns active in the past 30 days prior April 22-30.

  • 65% or 2,987 ad campaigns promoted individual articles or features such as newsletters, apps, or podcasts.
  • 24% or 1,121 campaigns promoted the paid subscription offers.
  • 11% or 514 campaigns boosted reach of branded content campaigns sold to the third parties.

Out of 56 brands studied, 50 (or 89%) were actively advertising on Facebook apps in the past 30 days.

  • On average, publishers run 83 different campaigns. The median though was just 26 campaigns.
  • The list of the top advertisers by the number of campaigns features some of the world’s biggest subscription news brands — U.S. newspapers The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, U.K.-based news magazine The Economist and U.S.-based sports news app The Athletic, and national leaders such as Le Figaro and Le Monde in France, Bild in Germany, Clarin in Argentina, Gazeta Wyborcza in Poland, and The Times of London in the U.K.
  • Interestingly, it was The Wall Street Journal that ran the highest number of campaigns in the studied period at 845. 

Investigation of the ad activity of similar and competing news sites leads to surprises. For example, two leading business news brands ‚ The Wall Street Journal and The Financial Times — show a radically different approach to social as acquisition channels.

  • Both WSJ and FT actively publish on Facebook. The former had 6.4 million likes to its page at the end of April, and the latter — 3.9 million likes.
  • In the past 30 days, WSJ additionally boosted its content, promoted features and sales, with 845 different campaigns. In the same period, FT did not run any campaigns on Facebook.
  • According to FIPP Global Digital Subscriptions Snaphot Q2 2020, the WSJ has 2 million digital-only subscribers and the FT has 800,000. 

Let’s dive into advertising strategies of another pair: Le Figaro and Le Monde, two leading French news sites.

  • The two advertise on Facebook similarly often. They had 433 and 432 active campaigns in the past 30 days, respectively.
  • Their objectives, though, are different: Le Figaro put most of its money into driving installs of its apps, while Le Monde spread the expenditure towards boosting articles, selling new subscriptions and promoting features such as newsletters or videos on Facebook Watch.

Interested in more insights about the publishers’ ad activity on Facebook? You’ll find a full typology of 4,625 campaigns in the next week’s edition of this newsletter. 

4. CASE STUDY. Analyse a newly launched paywall of Spain’s El Pais

With its 83 million unique browsers, El Pais is the biggest Spanish-language news site in the world. Last weekend, it launched a paywall.

A new digital subscription model was in the works for a year. The launch of the paywall was originally scheduled in March, but then the pandemic broke and it was postponed. Readers could though subscribe voluntarily and, as El Pais announced, thousands did.

El Pais catches up with the global shift to reader revenue and its main competitor in the core Spanish market, El Mundo, that launched its paywall in October last year.

  • El Pais chose a meter model that limits free reading to 10 articles per month. Additionally, some feature articles require registration.
  • The paid value proposition includes unlimited access to all content, a reduced advertising inventory on the Web and in the app, a right to add comments and access to “exclusive cultural experiences”.
  • The recommended offer is a monthly digital subscription for 1 in the first month and 10 afterwards. There is also an annual digital package for €108 and a bundle that includes print for 40 per month. 

Last weekend, I tested the Web-based purchase flow of El Pais and, at the first sight, I found it rather complex. That inspired me to analyse it in detail and ideate ways to optimise it. 

  • My biggest doubt is whether it is a good idea to require setting up an account at El Pais before collecting payment data, as it is adding friction and risk that the reader abandons the purchase flow.
  • The registration form requires data points that are hardly necessary at this stage, such as the date of birth, potentially adding to the friction.
  • Last but not least, the registration flow requires the new reader to validate the account by clicking on a link in the confirmation e-mail.
  • All this seems to be the kind of an unnecessary friction that made U.S. metro publishers lose, per The Lenfest Insitute’s benchmarks, 85% of prospect customers that entered the purchase flow.
  • Luckily, at El Pais there’s an option to register with a Facebook or Google login that simplifies the process for many users.
  • Still, right after choosing the plan, the reader needs to first scroll the plan’s description one more time and confirm. Again.
  • I wonder whether one couldn’t reduce friction in the flow by capturing essential customer and payment data in one step instead of three. E-mail is essential as an identifier to confirm the sale and claim the benefits. A password or a date of birth are not essential.
  • And if a password is needed later, a publisher could generate it for the reader or send a link to a password entry page after the completed purchase.

What do you think? How would you optimise the flow of El Pais? How did you work on optimising yours? 

Interested in the optimisation of registration flows? We had a great meet-up last week. Check a written summary, or watch a video recording. 

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.

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