Subscription research sheds light on the expected lifespan of the COVID bump

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. FORECASTING: The COVID-19 bump is likely to be longer than any other news event in the past 15 years 

Having enjoyed spikes in online traffic and subscription sales in March, news publishers brace for the end of the bump. Is it going to be quick or slow? Will there be more peaks?

The analysis of Google Trends data, a proxy for the audience’s interest due the large volume of data, confirms the COVID-19 pandemic is an unprecedented event in terms of scale and length.

  • The demand for online news worldwide doubled versus the averages for the past five years and more than tripled versus the averages of 2005-2010.
  • The demand spiked in March and dropped since then. In early April, it still was 56% up vs. the average for the past year.
  • In China, the demand peaked at the end of January, then it fell, and then it climbed again. The average for March was 50% up and in the early April it was 58%.
  • Thinking of the duration of the spike in demand, we do know that the interest wanes over time, but we do not know the exact duration and the shape of the curve. 

So, how quickly is the bump going to end? In the last edition of the newsletter we described the “hard landing” pattern observed by Mather Economics around high-interest news events. During natural disasters, elections, crimes, or dramatic sports events such as the NFL Super Bowl, the acquisition of new subscribers sped. After the interest waned, the sales suddenly dived, even below the pre-event level.

Some INMA members expressed doubts whether the pandemic would follow the “hard landing” pattern. Lukas Görög of Die Presse in Austria wrote on the INMA Slack channel: “I don’t think the drop will be so dramatic and steep, as in the case of Super Bowl, and I also think it will last longer.” Last week, Die Presse was converting on average three times more subscribers than before the pandemic.

So, what kind of a bump is the right benchmark here? 

The 2019 study on the lifespan of news stories found an average news cycle in the United States lasted only for a median of seven days, with the longest lasting event getting interest for 43 days.

Researchers from Google Trends, Schema Design, and Axios saw the duration of the bumps depending on the speed at which events developed, and whether or not their outcomes were expected, like in the case of elections or the sports game finale.

They identified four patterns:

  • Symmetric: steady climb, steady fall. This pattern reflected news events that were anticipated ahead of time and continued to capture interest afterwards, such as elections, new bills.
  • Skewed left: slow climb, quick fall. This was an anticipated or ongoing event that ended with a simple conclusion, such as natural phenomena or sports games.
  • Skewed right: quick climb, slow fall. This reflected sudden and unexpected news events, such as tragedies and natural catastrophes.
  • Non-symmetric: multiple peaks. This was an important event that spawned a secondary reaction or addition, such as trials or scandals with long repercussions, or long crises such as immigration. 

Thinking of the COVID-19 pandemic, news publishers may expect the demand for the coverage is going to follow a pattern of a long crisis with a high potential for multiple peaks, depending on the development of the outbreak and the lockdowns.

My reasoning is based on the two observations:

  • My analysis of Google Trends suggests the demand for news in China has lasted for more than 100 days already, and the second bump can be observed in March, as the new coronavirus cases were confirmed.
  • The bump in Italy, the first country in Europe affected by the pandemic, has lasted for more than 50 days so far, and in early April still was 50% vs. pre-Covid averages.

Forecasting future traffic to news sites, publishers may wish to factor the difference in demand to general news and to specialist news categories and other verticals.

  • Based on the traffic trends in Europe, where the pandemic broke a few weeks earlier than in the United States, one can expect a shift of attention from public health-related news to economy news as people become more concerned with the state of the economy. 
  • One can also safely predict a prolonged drop in attention to some lifestyle categories crippled by the lockdown, such as automotive, travel, etc.

Forecasting future demand for news subscriptions, the core analysis of Mather Economics and other experts stands, in my opinion:

  • The COVID-19 spike in sales most likely came from the mobilisation of already engaged readers, and not new ones, as the analysis of another expert vendor, Deep.BI, showed.
  • The high-interest news event sped the conversion of engaged readers, but that created a gap in the bottom of the funnel. The new ones attracted to the site for the first time might convert, too, but not in the near term.
  • So, the duration of the subscription bump may follow the bump in traffic, only if publishers successfully engage new readers at the top of the funnel and fill the bottom of the funnel over the next weeks and months. 

How to keep the subscribers you had acquired during the bump? Join me and my guests from The Seattle Times and Mather Economics at the just-in-time Readers First Meet-up: Subscriber Retention in the Age of the Downturn on Thursday, April 16. Sign up here for the Webinar. 

2. UPDATE ON SUBSCRIPTIONS: The peak of the COVID-19 bump passed, but sales still higher than before the pandemic 

Last week, sales of online subscriptions slowed down in both Europe and in the United States. They are now up 101% and 69%, respectively, compared to the pre-crisis period.

“Given that the bump started mid-March in the U.S., April may well still turn out to be a better month than March in the U.S. for subscriptions,” said Patrick Appel, director of research at Piano, a digital business platform vendor. 

In collaboration with Piano, INMA has tracked the bump on a weekly basis since mid-March. The benchmarks are based on the transactional data of 295 paywalled news sites across the world. 

3. UPDATE ON TRAFFIC: The interest in the COVID-19 coverage flat and still generates one-third of engagement 

After sudden drops in interest in the COVID-19 coverage at the end of March, online traffic stabilised during early April, Chartbeat data showed.

Pageviews and total engagement time stayed relatively flat (-1%), and more importantly the proportion of page views and time spent on COVID-19 articles were flat as well: 27% and 29%, respectively.

Search traffic increased by 18% week over week thanks to the queries about health of U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson and unemployment benefits.

In terms of total traffic, as Lauryn Warnick of Chartbeat reported to INMA, Twitter surpassed Goggle Chrome Suggestions to become the 4th largest external source of traffic after Google Search, Facebook, and Google News. 

4. PAID CONTENT: The rise of do-it-yourself at home advice and lifestyle 

With readers stuck at home, news sites offer advice about how to make their lives better. Fancy a live yoga class, anybody?

  • Publishers big and small, such as The Washington Post and La Voix du Nord in France, published visual guides in print and online about how to make oneself a face mask from paper and from cloth.
  • Italy’s La Repubblica added the second COVID-19-related newsletter, “Restando a casa” (“Staying at home”) with daily tips on fitness, TV, music, and books. It’s free for all readers. Within a few weeks it amassed 10,000 subscribers, a similar number to the main “Antivirus” newsletter focused on health policies.
  • Poland’s Gazeta Wyborcza introduced daily yoga classes via video streaming for its female readers and experimented with online physical education (PE) classes for kids. The new content initiatives are branded as the Institute of a Good Life.
  • German news weekly Die Zeit launched a daily newsletter for kids — based on the vast library of content of its sister publication, a children magazine Zeit Leo (“Zeit Lion”). The aim is to keep the kids happy and entertained during the lockdown and to ease the pain of parents trying to work while home schooling. It got 10,000 subscribers in one week.
  • The Wall Street Journal launched Noted, a section of video diaries of readers, with college students, medical residents, artists, and gig workers telling stories about “how they are weathering life’s challenges in the COVID-19 era”. 

Looking for inspiration about what topics might be of readers interest, editors may wish to check the latest trends in e-commerce.

Among the 100 fastest rising e-commerce categories in the United States in March, as reported by Stackline, a retail intelligence company, one can find:

  • Bread machines (652% growth vs. March 2019), as people bake themselves.
  • Weight training equipment (307% growth), as they try to stay fit.
  • Personal computers and accessories (172% growth), as they learn how to work and learn remotely.
  • Craft kits (117% growth), as they find more time for hobbies.
  • Hair colouring (115% growth), as they want to look great as before, despite no access to the hairdressers. 

What about your news publication? What content discoveries have you made while trying to help your readers cope with the lockdown? 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 am 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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