11 audience insights remembered from 2020

By Matt Lindsay

Mather Economics

Atlanta, Georgia, USA


2020 has been a year unlike any other in recent memory.

This post is a review of our (nearly) monthly blog posts before and during the global COVID-19 pandemic. In addition, 2020 was my fourth year as a blogger for INMA, and this post is the fourth annual review. These annual reviews are a nice way to end the year and reflect on what we have learned.

Digital subscription and churn-related trends were impacted by COVID-19.
Digital subscription and churn-related trends were impacted by COVID-19.

January: trends in digital subscriptions

The first post of 2020 summarised trends related to digital subscriptions. These trends were:

  • Less free content for non-subscribers.
  • Lower acquisition offer prices to offset the lower engagement of readers hitting the paywall.
  • Longer promotional periods to give readers time to build the reading habit.
  • Onboarding journeys to promote engagement during their promotional period.
  • Content promotion to drive subscriptions from content-motivated subscribers.
  • Brand promotion to preserve the brand value of local newspapers in their communities.
  • Value letters to highlight the value proposition of digital subscriptions.
  • Targeted average return per user (ARPU) increases to raise digital subscription prices to levels comparable to print while minimising losses from price-sensitive customers.

March: digital subscription benchmarks during the COVID-19 pandemic

The first COVID-19-related blog post of the year was this entry from March. In this article we compared key subscription metrics from the 30 days between January 17 and February 16 to February 17 to March 16. Key observations were that conversion rates had increased 49% and total conversions 71%.

April: the limits of propensity scoring

Arvid and I co-authored this post that summarised an important finding from our work with publishers on dynamic metering. Our primary insight was that the optimal metre strategy was to have tight metres on both ends of the reader engagement distribution but for different reasons.

Highly engaged readers were the best subscription targets and should receive subscription offers as soon as possible. Unengaged and mostly unknown readers should not receive much free content since they were unlikely to view another page, and the lack of data on them minimised the value of propensity scoring. We call this the “rainbow” metre strategy since additional free content should only be offered to customers in the middle of the engagement distribution.

May: the churn-price elasticity matrix

The May post advocated publishers segment their readers by churn risk and price elasticity to determine the best tactics to employ for individual subscribers. Knowledge of these two customer characteristics enables publishers to focus their retention efforts where they are most needed and to raise long-term audience revenue and customer lifetime value.

June: how to have a breakthrough in subscription volumes

By June of this year, COVID-19 had accelerated start volumes for many publishers around the world. The issue of sustaining the trends in digital subscription growth was on the minds of many companies.

Mather summarised the tactics that help publishers take their digital subscription volumes to the next level. Tactics that are discussed in this post include:

  • Changing the nature of acquisition offers to grow start volume and improve retention. This includes long-term offers and extended promotional terms.
  • Increasing subscription starts. We provided details related to growing the number of sales attempts with premium content, reducing the amount of free content, adopting an organisational structure that facilitated rapid product development and experimentation, and reducing friction in the checkout process.
  • Decreasing subscription stops. Strategies related to this include minimising renewal payment frictions, proactive targeted retention campaigns, onboarding journeys for new subscribers, and strategic pricing tactics.

July: COVID-19 benchmark update

The COVID-19 pandemic’s effects on subscriptions was coming off of the early peak, and we provided a summary of the metrics by month from February to July. Mather published monthly updates for our clients through this time, and we shared the key findings from those updates in this post. Clearly, COVID-19 was here to stay for much longer than initially hoped.

August: the value of knowing a reader

Arvid and I extended the subject of our April post by measuring how valuable converting an unknown visitor to a known reader was to a publisher. We advocated strongly for the adoption of registration walls to help move readers down the conversion funnel toward subscription purchases. In summary, a successful registration resulted in a four-fold lift in conversion probability and a 3.4-fold gain in net revenue from a reader.

September: digital subscription pricing test results

Matthew Lulay and I described our work with several publishers on renewal price tests on digital subscriptions in our September blog post. The good news is that we observed low price elasticity for engaged, long-tenured digital subscriptions. We noted a sustainable digital subscription business requires prices for digital customers that are comparable to print subscriptions. Fortunately, publishers appear to have pricing power for digital subscriptions.

October: maximising long-term audience revenue

The difficult task of migrating subscribers from profitable print subscriptions to equally profitable digital subscriptions was the focus of our October post. Understanding the current profitability of print subscribers and developing a plan for engaging these readers on digital platforms and migrating them to fewer print-day packages are the critical steps for retaining long-term subscription revenue and profits.

November: interview with Matthijs van de Peppel of NRC

My co-author of The Relationship Economy in 2017 and long-term collaborator, Matthijs van de Peppel, director of B2C marketing at NRC Media in Amsterdam, shared the story of how NRC has reached its all-time high number of subscribers in 2020. We discussed the path to this point beginning in 2015, and his adoption of innovative management tactics that are described in his new book with Xavier van Leeuwe, The Human Touch.

December: here we are!

One big topic from 2020 that was not covered in a blog post was how to optimise the number of print days for your market. My colleague Matthew Lulay and Madeline Zwingelberg have completed several engagements in this area, and Dawn McMullan shared some of these insights in her excellent recent INMA report on the subject.

Hope you all have a wonderful holiday season and happy new year!

About Matt Lindsay

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