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Four lessons from the COVID-19 subscription surge

Four lessons from the COVID-19 subscription surge

2021-05-21. Patrick Appel, Director of Research at Piano, shares four key lessons from the subscription surge publishers experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic | sponsored content

Piano’s recently published Subscription Performance Benchmark Report explores the learnings from a year in which news publishers saw their subscriptions surge, due in part to COVID-19 and in part to a shift in consumer acceptance to support and pay for good journalism.

This increase demonstrates that content-driven subscription businesses can grow at an incredible pace during moments of high demand. Whether the circumstances generating that demand are sporting events, stock market fluctuations, political turmoil or a pandemic, being prepared for these shifts in consumer demand, and adapting content and marketing strategies as the top stories change, is critical to running a successful subscription business. Here are four highlights from the report.

Sales funnels shortened

We’ve known for years that a sizable share of an audience converts on their first active day in the month. But we recently uncovered how pre-conversion engagement changes as subscription products grow up. In the first year, about 43 percent of conversions are driven by users visiting five or more days in a month, while only 33 percent are driven by first-day visitors. But by the second year, those ratios flip, with about 41 percent of conversions happening on the first day, and only 32 percent of conversions from the five-plus cohort. That shift from high engagement users to lower engagement starts quickly. By the third month in market, the share of 10+ active day converters begins to drop, and the share of first-day converters grows.

Targeting sustained the surge

While the pandemic was the original subscription accelerant, the higher subscription acquisition rate hasn’t disappeared as COVID has worn on. We believe this is because the pandemic made many media companies realize that subscription dollars are vital to their future health, which has increased the seriousness with which they market their subscription products. Business maturity also played a role. We looked at two groups of sites: those on the Piano platform that launched before July 2019 and those that launched from August 2019 onward. What we found was that long-tenure sites have dramatically higher-paid exposure rates, with 15.2 per cent of visitors on those sites seeing a paid offer in Q4 — almost three times that of more recently launched sites.

Message placement matters

Conversion depends quite a lot on the mix of subscription messages and how often each type is shown to users. Ribbons, or soft paywalls, are most often used early in the funnel, counting down remaining article views for a metered paywall or promoting subscriptions and brand value proposition generally. Hard paywalls are most effective in driving action because they force the reader to decide on the spot — either pay or stop reading. Landing pages have relatively few visitors, but those who go there have a high intent to pay, so in this case, the lowest share of exposures delivers the highest share of conversions. Those different formats and exposure tactics produce very different conversion rates. And of course, there’s a range of performance within each of those types, driven by price, messaging, product, exposure rates, page layout and more.

Subscription tenure matters

Churn rate is highest in the first month — 80 per cent of it from active churn. The higher risk of cancellation within the first days and months of a subscription is one reason it’s beneficial to have onboarding campaigns that introduce users to the benefits of the subscription and encourage early usage and engagement. Piano’s cancellation propensity algorithm frequently finds that subscription tenure, the number of days since subscription conversion, is among the metrics most strongly associated with cancellation risk. Subscribers who have stuck around long enough to make multiple full-price payments are much more likely to continue to subscribe.


Publishers should use this time to assess how user behaviour impacted their subscription models in 2020 so they can prepare for future shifts in consumer demand that can occur due to a variety of macro factors. Some recommendations:

  • Determine when and how people were most likely to subscribe
  • Understand more about audience behaviours by analysing conversion rates, churn rates, special offers and trials
  • Incentivize greater on site engagement by optimizing your website with targeted messaging and personalized content
  • Use paid templates designed to boost conversions to maximize revenue opportunities

Gaining a deeper understanding of these patterns will help your business make strategic decisions that will boost the long-term success of your subscription model.

Source – https://wan-ifra.org/2021/05/four-lessons-from-the-covid-19-subscription-surge/

Written By – Patrick Appel


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