Note: Apple change their App Store Review Guidelines regularly and these should always be the first port of call for guidance on any of their policies. The below is some advice based on our experience submitting many many apps over the years, but the review team have been known to be inconsistent.
As a rule Pugpig are in favour of offering subscriptions via the App Stores in addition to allowing users to log in via direct subscriptions. It allows users who discover your app through the store to subscribe quickly and easily (you can't direct them to subscribe on your website via the app — see more below on this) and Apple in particular are more likely to promote your app if you offer store subscriptions.
Having said that, Apple do take a 30% cut of revenue from in-app purchases (going down to 15% in the second year of a user's subscription). For this and other reasons some publishers choose to only allow access to content in the app for those logging in as a direct subscriber.
It does not outright go against Apple's review guidelines to not offer in-app purchase subscriptions if you have protected content, but from time to time we do see Apple pick this up in the review process and ask questions about the business model. See below for some examples.
The App Store Review Guidelines
Here are two relevant sections from Apple's Review Guidelines (accurate as of 20 March 2020).
3.1.1 In-App Purchase:
If you want to unlock features or functionality within your app, (by way of example: subscriptions, in-game currencies, game levels, access to premium content, or unlocking a full version), you must use in-app purchase. Apps may not use their own mechanisms to unlock content or functionality, such as license keys, augmented reality markers, QR codes, etc. Apps and their metadata may not include buttons, external links, or other calls to action that direct customers to purchasing mechanisms other than in-app purchase.
3.1.3(a) “Reader” Apps: Apps may allow a user to access previously purchased content or content subscriptions (specifically: magazines, newspapers, books, audio, music, video, access to professional databases, VoIP, cloud storage, and approved services such as classroom management apps), provided that you agree not to directly or indirectly target iOS users to use a purchasing method other than in-app purchase, and your general communications about other purchasing methods are not designed to discourage use of in-app purchase.
Although these guidelines are public the way Apple enforces them is not always consistent, and they clearly have additional internal policies governing how the team responds to different cases.
Example responses from Apple in app review
We often see Apple being more stringent during the review process for apps that require login but do not offer in-app purchase (if this happens the app status becomes 'Metadata Rejected - more information needed'). For this reason we'd recommend factoring in extra time for app review to allow for some back and forth.
These are typical questions we have seen customers receive from Apple during the review process:
- Does your app access any paid content or services?
- What are the paid content or services, and what are the costs?
- Do individual customers pay for the content or services?
- If no, does a company or organization pay for the content or services?
- Where do they pay, and what's the payment method?
- If users create an account to use your app, are there fees involved?
- How do users obtain an account?
In response to these questions you need to explain your business model to Apple to establish that you are not trying to attract iOS users to purchase a subscription through you directly.
For apps where the publication is a membership benefit these can be answered easily by explaining that there's no way to subscribe to the publication independently of buying a membership. If that's not the case focus on the fact that the only way to purchase a subscription is directly via your website, and that this is not signposted from within the app.
Displaying account creation information within the app
Make sure there are no links in the app that direct users to somewhere on your website where a subscription can be bought (in the past Apple have even picked up the fact that a T&Cs page includes a CTA to subscribe — and that was on an app with in-app purchase).
If you have an additional step for print users to obtain a digital account (e.g. they are taken to an external page where they enter their print customer number and create a username & password) this has been fine in our experience.