Traffic and subscriptions surged during lockdowns, reaching record highs. What’s next?
The past few weeks of dropping stock prices might have publishers understandably nervous. No, not because their crypto holdings are at risk. Rather, there are growing signs of pandemic fatigue and people logging off from the digital, content-rich world.
The past few weeks have seen huge drops from such companies as Netflix, Meta (a.k.a. Facebook) and the home fitness equipment maker Peloton. The latter in particular tells a worrying story – as the world reopens, people want to ditch their lockdown habits and products.
For many one of those habits was their media subscription. Spending money on journalism was relatively painless when travel and bars were closed
But the story is less that of a crash and more one of transition. Much of the digital growth was borrowed from the future.
The great Covid boom
The pandemic initially heralded doom for publishers as advertisers pulled contracts and workplaces were forced to go remote. The 2 years that followed were far from easy. But there are also a lot of reasons to see this as a mini-golden age, of sorts.
Traffic and broad interest in media content surged as people struggled with lockdown boredom. More importantly, this period was a perfect storm for digital subscriptions – in most countries, people were already used to paying for digital content (thank you Netflix and mobile games) and suddenly had both time and money at their disposal.
The result has led to record subscription levels, especially at the bigger names. The Atlantic saw subscriptions jump by 50% to 833,410 in the 12 months to August 2021 (even more importantly, they phased out discounts, driving average subscription value up 45%). In the UK, both The Telegraph and the Economist, saw record growth.
A report by subscription manager Piano indicated that their largest clients saw an increase of almost 58% over the first year of the pandemic. Encouragingly, they were also a bit stickier. One year into the pandemic, 43.6% of post-pandemic subscriptions were retained vs. the pre-Covid average of 40%.
Pandemic fatigue – stagnation or crash
The jump in digital business growth was described as “the quickening” by consulting firm McKinsey. Basically, the pandemic accelerated an existing trend of shifting to digital. In one example, the firm noted, e-commerce penetration in the US jumped by a decade’s worth in just 3 months.
The recent Netflix results point to a similar phenomenon. The company saw its best subscriber growth in 2020, but that essentially pulled from future growth.
This raises the question for publishers of what the next few years will look like. Specifically, will the market crash, or just stagnate?
Luckily for most publishers, they will at least avoid the market backlash or scrutiny: Your share price can’t really fall, at least so publicly, if you are not listed. So don’t expect many mass resignations of media CEOs.
But people and countries are also increasingly “done” with Covid. Countries are opening up, “the era of restrictions is fast coming to an end” reads the latest Bloomberg headline. A large part of the world, it seems, simply wants to forget anything happened. (Obviously, Covid is not following this trend, which means we may all soon come to regret the current easing of restrictions).
As people venture out, however, they are also starting to review their habits. Unsubscribing from those annoying emails, saving up cash for nights out with friends… The competition for people’s time and money is becoming much more intense.
Not the end of history
All this doesn’t mean that the times of rapid subscription growth are over. For one, there is still a decent amount of people to be converted into subscribers. (Although getting a person to subscribe to more than one outlet is several times more difficult and that window is closing).
Secondly, the current subscription model is not “the end of history”. There will probably be a lot more innovation that will bring additional revenues. Think bundles, micro-payments, dynamic paywalls…
Indeed, some players are still betting they can jump on the subscriptions bandwagon. Clearly the level of excitement around the project by Ben Smith, formerly of the NYT, and Justin Smith, ex-CEO of Bloomberg Media, suggests that there will still be capital to fund such ventures. (Although some have questioned how much unserved audience space there actually is).
But there is a good chance the first gold rush is coming to an end. Slower growth will likely favour more consolidation. The winners can rejoice.
This piece was originally published in The Fix and is re-published with permission.