How the pandemic is pushing digital subscription innovation worldwide

By Brie Logsdon


Nashville, Tennessee, United States


Editor’s note: This is a brief synopsis of content from the INMA Virtual World Congress, which is being held May 5-28. Attendees will have access to speaker presentations and recordings.

Publishers have seen unprecedented spikes in online traffic and digital subscriptions during the COVID-19 crisis that are lasting longer than predicted, yet the peak is over and the pivot to retention is here, INMA Researcher-in-Residence Grzegorz (Greg) Piechota told 332 media executives from 43 countries at Thursday's INMA Virtual World Congress.

“This is a crazy time. It’s a time of many innovations,” Piechota said after leading Thursday’s sessions about the best news to come out of the pandemic for news media companies — digital subscriptions are at record levels. “People are really pushing boundaries. There’s lots of excitement and, therefore, there’s a lot of new stuff, a lot of innovation. I find it really exciting. This is special. There is so much good energy. Imagine you go to a club and every club you pass on the way is playing slow, sad songs. Then you see this one club in which everybody is happy dancing. I want to be here.”

The importance of trust has been emphasised during the pandemic.
The importance of trust has been emphasised during the pandemic.

Kicking off the second of nine modules, Piechota shared a key takeaway from the first module: the importance of this trust moment for news brands. While brands can have altruistic reasons for doing good, it also makes sense from a business perspective. People notice when brands invest in their communities. And news media companies around the world are rising to the challenge.

Thursday’s module focused on a more obvious opportunity for publishers during the COVID-19 crisis: subscriptions. Brands are in a position to accelerate their subscriptions efforts as digital becomes even more prevalent in people’s daily lives. Consider this statistic: Forced isolation is adding an hour of media consumption per day.

Over the course of the 2.5-hour module, Virtual World Congress participants heard presentations about the state of news subscriptions, subscription fatigue and managing relationships, and case studies centered on key themes of premium, retention, pauses, and skinny bundles. INMA members can stay up-to-date on the latest best practices through the Readers First Initiative and INMA Knows topics as publishers continue to fluidly react to coronavirus’ impact on subscriptions and share their stories with the community.  

There are a few advantages to a virtual conference.
There are a few advantages to a virtual conference.

The common themes from Thursday include:

  1. Activating print readers online, a challenge author Robbie Kellman Baxter and executives from Gannett and Singapore Press Holdings shared in case studies.
  2. Keeping your companies young, which Baxter discussed with the concept of younger “shadow boards” at news media companies and her warning that as employees age, so do their companies and, inadvertently, the demographic they are able to reach.
  3. Retaining subscribers through the COVID-bump and the global economic instability in front of us. Each of Thursday’s case studies discussed retention in some way

During his presentation, Piechota shared research from Chartbeat and Piano, delving into the paywall decisions companies are making during the pandemic and the content need among readers —  including the interesting fact that the COVID-19 bump is even better for The New York Times than the Trump bump was. 

Piechota also discussed: 

  • Research that shows offering free subscriptions to students seems a future-thinking digital subscription model. 
  • Many publishers are running subscription marketing ads on Facebook, Instagram, and Messenger. 
  • Determining what content — from puzzles and live blogs to charts and virtual events — drives engagement and subscriptions is important. 

“It’s very interesting that publishers might have very different strategies, and I hope it is very inspiring for you to just explore what your competitors are doing, what the leaders are doing, because perhaps you might do something that makes sense for you,” Piechota said.

Another fun fact Piechota shared (along with examples of what news media companies are doing about it): 23% of people want to avoid COVID-19 coverage completely. 

The Telegraph in the UK offers a newsletter for readers who do not want to read about COVID-19.
The Telegraph in the UK offers a newsletter for readers who do not want to read about COVID-19.

The news industry is seeing an unprecedented surge in the demand for online news and online news subscriptions. These are separate phenomena: New subscriptions sign-ups are not coming from new readers: “Publishers are innovating with user experiences to engage readers because retention is the new big objective,” Piechota said. 

Most companies have gone through other crises in the past, and those times have shown that organisations who move through crisis thoughtfully and with an investment mindset fare better than those that take a “slash and hold” approach, said Frank Ernst, vice president of Subscribed Institute at Zuora shared with attendees. 

“Using this opportunity to see your value to your customers is really critical,” Ernst said. “How are you thinking about your relationships with your subscribers? I would encourage you to really start to think about having an agile frame of mind so your subscribers can tell you what they want.”

Among the big takeaways from Thursday’s session, as summarised by INMA Executive Director/CEO Earl Wilkinson: 

  • Coronavirus-related subscription acquisitions are waning now, so retention and engagement must go into overdrive. 
  • The next stage of COVID involves premium angles around the coronavirus, premium journalism, premium newsletters. 
  • Media companies must balance the conundrum of worrying about broken habits among long-time readers and getting beyond the friction of developing new habits with young readers. 
INMA Researcher-In-Residence Grzegorz Piechota has been following the COVID bump since early on in the pandemic.
INMA Researcher-In-Residence Grzegorz Piechota has been following the COVID bump since early on in the pandemic.

The Virtual World Congress continues Monday with module three of nine, “Advertising In Crisis: Navigation and Uplift.” This was going to be a significant topic in Paris (before INMA’s physical conference was cancelled) and is now even more important during the coronavirus impact on businesses.

COVID-19 has triggered many questions around advertising from brand safety issues to the re-thinking of marketing messaging. Monday’s module will be moderated by Nicki Purcell, CEO of Lifeblue, and will feature just-in-time insights from Neal Zuckerman of Boston Consulting Group, Duncan Stewart of Deloitte, Matt Prohaska of Prohaska Consulting, Ian Hocking of South China Morning Post, Kevin Gentzel of Gannett | USA Today Network, Eimear Moran of The Irish Times, and Frederic Kachar of Infoglobo. 

Register here for individual sessions or the entire Congress (the latter includes access to this and previous sessions).

Banner image courtesy of StartupStockPhotos from Pixabay.

About Brie Logsdon

By continuing to browse or by clicking “ACCEPT,” you agree to the storing of cookies on your device to enhance your site experience. To learn more about how we use cookies, please see our privacy policy.