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The year in subscriptions: A growth story

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Platforms and publishers benefitted from steady growth in consumers paying for content

2020 saw many publishers enjoy Covid-induced waves of new subscribers. But as life slowly returns to normal, attention is now turning to clever retention tactics. Esther Kezia Thorpe rounds up the past twelve months in subscriptions as part of our Media Moments 2021 report.

As global lockdowns forced many people around the world to turn to reliable news sources for crucial information, publishers with subscription businesses saw an unexpected boom in people signing up. The gains weren’t just seen in news, though. Hobby and entertainment magazines also got a subscriber boost, as people doubled down on their leisure interests, from gardening to gaming.

In 2021, as many countries have begun the long road to recovery, subscriber retention was been the primary focus for publishers. What do they have to do to ensure consumers stick around as the rhythm of normal life resumes?

Retention, retention, retention

Early figures show promise, for magazines at least. In the U.S., the largest magazines retained 95% of their circulation through the crisis. Strong print subscription bases and growing digital issue readership helped titles like Vanity Fair, Vogue, and the New Yorker grow over the past twelve months. Analysis by Press Gazette shows that for the top 50 magazine brands, print subscriptions have fallen by 7%, but digital subscriptions are up a massive 70% over the last two years.

However, for print newspapers, the picture is less rosy. America’s top 25 largest newspapers have lost 20% of their weekday print circulation since the Covid-19 crisis began. Although these figures have been trending downwards for a while, lockdowns have significantly accelerated the rate of decline.

Savvy digital news publishers are telling a different story, with some publications continuing to add subscribers, albeit more slowly than this time last year. The Atlantic’s paid readership jumped by more than 280,000 in the twelve months to August 2021, meaning that the publisher now reports a total circulation of 833,410 – more than at any time in its 164 year history.

CEO Nicholas Thompson noted that the jump of paid readers came without discounting: “‘In fact, we’ve been strategically moving readers away from low introductory offers to prices that reflect the true worth of our journalism. The average value of each subscription has grown a stunning 45 percent since the first half of 2019, right before we launched our paywall.”

Next in The Atlantic’s sights are newsletter writers as a way to boost their subscriber numbers. In late 2021, the publisher contracted nine well-known writers to a new newsletter programme, including Charlie Warzel, Molly Jong-Fast and Nicole Chung. “Our hope is that the number of subscribers from their work and potential ad revenue — the amount of money comes in exceeds the amount we’re paying them,” Thompson said.

Similarly, The Economist has continued its seemingly endless growth, reaching 1.12 million subscribers over the summer. The addition of 90,000 new subscribers meant it hit its largest ever increase in a single year. The majority of these new subscribers are digital-only, with the team prioritising streamlining of their digital products.

In fact, analysis from Piano suggests that news subscriptions taken out since the pandemic began have proven to be more resilient than those purchased before March 2020.

However, although steady increases spell good news for publishers, these gains don’t always meet expectations. Bloomberg is one publisher that has fallen short of targets, with CEO Justin B Smith telling Press Gazette that this is the one area of the business that has fallen victim to a ‘Trump slump’. In February, Axios reported that Bloomberg Media expected to hit 400,000 subscriptions by the end of 2021. But Smith admits this is going to fall short:

“The reason for that in fact is that we’ve seen, post the Trump era and post the January 6 insurrection, there’s been a significant downturn in the news cycle. So we’ve seen flatter traffic across this year than we’ve historically seen.”

Platforms double down on subscriptions

We can’t talk about subscriptions without mentioning the platforms. Twitter launched its subscription product – Twitter Blue – in the U.S. at the end of the year, offering users the ability to undo tweets, see ‘Top Stories’ and ad-free articles for $2.99 a month. A portion of that subscriber revenue will go towards supporting partner publications.

Newsletter platform Substack hit 1 million paid subscribers in November. Although it could be argued they’re more a collection of smaller publishers, the milestone is nonetheless significant for demonstrating the willingness of audiences to pay for content directly from their favourite writers.

Not to be outdone, Facebook launched its own newsletter subscription product, Bulletin, which allows writers to take payment from subscribers. 2021 was also the year Apple decided to launch paid podcast subscriptions; something we’ll go into more detail about in our Audio chapter.

Where next

The majority of publishers who rely on subscriptions are now turning their attention to data to get smarter about increasing conversion rates and learning more about their existing subscribers. A recent report from the INMA suggests that figuring out how to convert ‘casual, infrequent and picky’ readers will be key to continuing sustainable growth.

Subscriber engagement will also be a key battleground going forward. According to a data analysis in 45 markets by Northwestern University’s Medill Spiegel Research Center, nearly half of local news outlets’ digital subscribers are ‘zombie’ readers who visit the website less than once a month. Less active subscribers may be a decent revenue stream for publishers, but they are a weak foundation to build a future on.

We have yet to see much evidence of the oft-forecast subscription fatigue. In fact for some outlets and writers, there is a growing trend of readers choosing to support publications they believe in via a patronage model, regardless of whether or not content is paywalled. Judd Legum, a successful Substack writer, actually removed his paywall last year but took no noticeable hit to his subscriber numbers.

Instead, the focus is now turning to community-building tools and extras like exclusive podcasts in order to make subscribers feel like part of the family.

This article is an extract from our annual report, Media Moments 2021. For more on this chapter including case studies and key statistics, download it now for free.

Republished with kind permission of Media Voices, a weekly look at all the news and views from across the media world.