Trial subscription wins, loyalty club shifts amid the pandemic

By Grzegorz Piechota


Oxford, United Kingdom


Hi! This is Readers First, a newsletter for INMA members on reader revenue innovation. I’m researcher-in-residence at INMA. E-mail me at: 

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1. COVID BUMP: Trial subscriptions drove the surge during the pandemic 

News publishers that offered free and discounted trial subscriptions saw a significantly higher spike in new subscriptions starts during the pandemic than the publishers who did not.

This is based on the analysis of 284 news media sites using Piano business platform, prepared for the INMA Masterclass on Digital Subscriber Retention, starting today.

  • Publishers with majority of the trial starts enjoyed 105% increase in monthly sales in March versus February, while the others sold just 32% more.
  • The difference was smaller, but still significant in April (108% increase vs. 61% increase) and in May (73% vs. 48%). 

INMA’s original research of the top-50 biggest subscription news brands showed one-third of them responded to the pandemic in March with aggressive pricing: They lowered the price of their basic digital access or introduced new cheaper trial offers.

  • For example, Dagens Nyheter in Sweden offered a free trial for one month and US$12.81 thereafter.
  • La Repubblica in Italy offered a trial of €1 per month for three months and €10 thereafter.
  • The New York Times in the United States offered a trial of US$1 per week for one year and US$4.25 thereafter. 

Although free and discounted trialists usually churn at a much higher rate than full rate subscribers, it seems the aggressive pricing might have actually paid out in the pandemic. “So far, cancellation rates are lower for monthly who subscribers who converted during the pandemic,” commented Patrick Appel, director of research at Piano.

The churn rates for new subscribers acquired in March and April were on average 14% lower than the rates for the January-February cohorts. One hypothesis is the news cycle helped: The news on the pandemic and its consequences engaged readers making them less likely to cancel. 

Patrick Appel will share the latest retention benchmarks and trends from Piano later today (Tuesday, June 16) at the INMA Masterclass on Digital Subscriber Retention. You can still buy a ticket and participate live, or catch up later on-demand. 

2. LOYALTY: Readers clubs shift to online experiences, offers amid the lockdowns 

Experiences and discounts have been the most popular features of the news brand’s loyalty clubs and membership programmes. The COVID-related lockdowns forced changes in rewards.

In May, INMA reviewed the value propositions of the top-50 news brands based on the number of digital subscribers.

  • We found 30% or 15 brands had loyalty programmes, mostly automatically signing up the new subscribers. For example, the Wall Street Journal has its WSJ+ and Norway’s Aftenposten has A-kortet.
  • Further 14% or 7 brands offered non-content benefits as part of their membership scheme. For example, the UK Guardian has its Patrons and Slovak Dennik N has its Club N. 

Majority of the loyalty clubs — 11 out of 15 — offer both rewards related to news/journalism and rewards similar to non-news loyalty clubs, such as shopping malls or airlines.

  • Among the rewards related to news, the most common reward types are experiences: access to journalistic events, such as discussions with well-known individuals and experts, master classes, and visits to the newsroom. They are offered by more than half of the brands, or 9 out of 15 clubs.
  • News brands offer also podcasts, the publishers’ magazines, e-books written by their journalists, member-exclusive newsletters, access to archives.
  • Among the rewards non-related to news, the most common types are discounts to shops, restaurants, or service providers (such as travel agencies). They are offered by majority of brands, or 12 out of 15 clubs.
  • The non-news related experiences include online courses, alcohol tasting sessions, business clubs. 
  • Competitions and lotteries are less common and offered by half of the brands. 

Amid the pandemic, the loyalty clubs have been forced to remove out-of-home rewards such as physical events, discounts for in-person services, etc.

For example, for German Zeit’s club Freunde der Zeit, in-person events were at the centre of the subscriber engagement strategy. “Traditionally, digital events did not work for us. The pandemic changed it,” said Lennart Schneider of Die Zeit in an interview with INMA. “We are getting between 100 and 1,000 readers registering. The most popular was a meeting with the best-selling author Daniel Kehlmann, of which 650 readers watched live.”

This is a common ratio: between 50% and 70% people who register actually watches the online events live. The rest might wish to watch the event on-demand when it’s convenient.

Die Zeit records the events, cuts them into parts, and then republishes as videos and as audio podcasts to increase the distribution.

It has experimented with many online meeting technologies and settled on Clickmeeting, which doesn’t require participants to download any apps and allows watching streams right in the browser. “That was important for our B2B subscribers, many of whom couldn’t install any software themselves on company’s computers,” explained Schneider.

Freunde der Zeit has 67,000 registered members. The membership is free to all 350,000 subscribers who need to opt in.

Lennart Schneider will talk about German Zeit’s loyalty club tomorrow (Wednesday, June 17) at the monthly meet-up of the Readers First initiative. INMA members can register for free. 

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.

Banner image courtesy of Radek Grzybowski on Unsplash/The New York Times.

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