Subscriber gains continue, but post-pandemic growth needs new strategies

Via Unsplash

There has been a flurry of news on the subscriptions scene this month. Despite a slowing rate of growth for paid-content pioneer The New York Times, publishers continue to announce impressive subscriber gains. All are looking to tweak growth strategies to protect business won during the peak of the pandemic.

  • Quarterly growth in digital subscriber numbers at the New York Times was the lowest since Q2 2018, down to 4.5% compared with an average of 10% in 2020. However, that still represents 167,000 new subscribers in one quarter.
  • Speaking at the launch of its Global Digital Subscription Snapshot 2021 Q2, FIPP CEO James Hewes said: “When you get to 7 million subscribers as they have, it’s hard to drive the same kind of double-digit growth rate that you did when you were smaller.”
  • The NYT’s weak quarter was also worth more than $10 million in new digital subscriber revenue; that is more than most single quarters since the beginning of 2017. With annual digital subscription revenue at $650 million, digital subscriptions are now the largest single income stream for the NYT.
Growth across the board
  • Also taking more than 50% of its revenues from digital subscriptions, German publisher Axel Springer has reported total group subscriptions of more than 1 million for the first time. The subscriptions are across newspapers BILD and WELT, plus news sites Politico Europe and Insider.
  • Away from newspapers, The Economist posted a 27% increase in operating profit over last year, reaching $58.2M. It put the gains, in part, down to a 9% increase in subscription growth, reporting a total of 1.12 million subscribers.
  • Hewes pointed out that the subscription business is not only focussed on the biggest players: “Some of the companies listed in the Snapshot are smaller businesses but by committing to a digital subs strategy even smaller businesses have been able to register significant success”
Post pandemic
  • Also speaking at the launch of the FIPP Subscription Snapshot, MD of paid-content solutions provider CeleraOne, York Walterscheid, said he thought publishers are preparing for the time when Covid-19 is not driving subscriptions.
  • “A big topic at the moment is discussions around post-Covid strategies and tactics – what can we do to keep the great conversion numbers or keep the new subscribers we got,” he said. “Did they only come to you because they were looking for Covid news or were they bored because of social distancing?”
  • To avoid a post-Covid slump, Walterscheid suggests looking to see if your tech stack is strong enough to ‘modify and influence’ conversion rates? He says publishers also need to think about engagement: “Off-page and on-page strategies need to be discussed and everything around personalisation and engagement.”

Discussing subscription strategies at a Financial Time’s ‘Future of News’ event, execs pointed out that introducing a digital paywall shouldn’t mean the end of free content. Instead it is a powerful tool in the fight to continue posting subscriber gains.

“We always tell people at Substack: make your best work free,” said Substack co-founder Hamish McKenzie. “It’s not a whack everything behind a paywall thing, it’s smartly use free content to grow and build your following and then wisely monetize the stuff that your most devoted followers will pay for.”

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