Churn Decreases Following COVID-19 Subscription Surge

By now, the surge in subscriptions driven by the pandemic is well-documented. Piano has been reporting performance over the past few months for nearly 300 websites using its platform to manage subscriptions. 

Piano saw new subscription acquisitions increase worldwide starting in the first half of March and continue increasing in April — leading to global subscription volumes more than 80% above those seen in the months prior to the pandemic. While growth has eased somewhat in May, it remains highly elevated. Last week, two months after the start of the surge, subscription volume was still 44% above the pre-pandemic baseline.  

Will these new subscribers stay?

Given this large growth in subscriptions, there’s been a lot of concern and speculation about whether these new subscribers would stay. Between the wide availability of pandemic coverage and the job loss and economic dislocation around the globe, it’s natural to assume that many of those subscribers would cancel at a higher rate too.

In fact, the opposite has happened — cancellations of monthly subscriptions acquired in March dropped an average of 17% compared to subscribers acquired in January and February. 

Segmenting by geography, Europe is where the real churn improvement happened — dropping by about 34%. In the US, churn was flat overall. But even flat is impressive, given the big increase in acquisition.

Trial subscription patterns are likely driving some of this retention improvement. Piano data generally shows that non-trial subscriptions retain better than trials, and that paid trials retain better than free. From January to April, free trials were nearly halved — dropping from 21% to 11% of all monthly subscriptions — while paid trials increased equivalently. 

The other big factor aiding retention is the renewed value that consumers are placing on quality news. This can be seen in the fact that, compared to earlier in the year, 74% more subscribers visited in March and April and those subscribers generated 41% more pageviews. 

While churn data for subscriptions acquired in April is still incomplete, data from auto-renew settings suggests that April churn performance will be similar to March, with April new subscribers also turning off auto-renew at lower than baseline rates.

Because most churn occurs in the days and months just after a subscriber converts, with subscribers becoming much less likely to cancel as they get accustomed to paying, these early churn numbers provide good reason to believe subscribers who convert during the pandemic are likely to remain subscribers over the longer term.   

How publishers can improve retention

Publishers looking to improve retention should focus on the same fundamentals used regardless of the pandemic surge:  

  • Use an onboarding campaign. Piano data shows that churn rate is highest in the first two months of a new subscription. Create a sequence of communications for those first months — both in email and on-site — to welcome new subscribers, introduce them to all the benefits of the subscription, encourage them to sign up for editorial newsletters and download your mobile app.  
  • Encourage repeat visits. Use editorial tactics that create habit, like frequently-updated news blogs, regular columns, daily newsletters. Product features — read later, watch lists, recipe boxes, etc. — can also create moments to drive users back. Our data shows that the more active days a user has, the lower their churn rate. Personalized content recommendations also drive higher pages per visitor, time on site and breadth of content consumption, which all contribute to retention.  
  • Manage trials and price strategically. One of the common mistakes we see is using inexpensive trials on a relatively expensive annual subscription — churn rate is almost always higher for those offers. As mentioned above, paid trials have higher retention rates than free trials, and acquisition rates can be only slightly lower. Test price to find the sweet spot of acquisition, retention and revenue.