Grow Digital Subscriptions with 4 Proven Insights


What drives people to sign up for digital subscriptions, especially when similar content can be easily obtained elsewhere for free? To answer this question, MECLABS Institute recently completed a survey of 900 U.S. consumers who spend at least three hours a week reading print or digital news content and earn at least $40,000 annually. Academic and industry experts were also interviewed as part of the research.

The full results are compiled in a MECLABS Executive Series report. However, we’re giving our readers a special high-level look at those results in this post and in this month’s MarketingExperiments 35-minute Web clinic replay, “Digital Subscriptions Boosted: Survey of 900 U.S. news consumers reveals four key insights to increase your subscriber base.” You can also watch an abbreviated, 10-minute interactive Research Brief.


Insight #1. Consumers sign up when they understand that a digital subscription will provide them a valuable experience that other products can’t match.

Consider an experiment conducted by a national newspaper. Treatment A focused on the value of subscribing to online news.

Treatment B focused on a discounted entry-level price. While value was mentioned on the landing page, the primary focus was the discount.


Treatment A increased clickthrough by 173% because it focused on the product-level value that the subscriber would obtain with their purchase: The opportunity to access unlimited stories in an easy-to-read format from any smart device from practically anywhere.

Insight #2. Consumers have been conditioned to expect a seamless digital experience.

That’s why it’s important to minimize friction – that is, anything that slows their movement toward a subscription. The next experiment illustrates this issue. It focused on the number of meter warnings that would pop up prior to the customer encountering the paywall.

In the Control, the paywall appears three times: after the first, fourth and fifth articles. In the Treatment, it showed up only after the first and fourth articles.


The Treatment won with a 115% increase in subscriptions.

Try to put yourself in the shoes of those consuming your content. Consider what it’s like to be interrupted with a sales pitch as you read. Think of ways to present the opportunity to buy in a way that is less painful, and then test them. You may see an increase in subscriptions.

Insight #3. Subscribers are primarily motivated by exclusivity. They have to think “I can only get this from you.”

The below chart, taken from the MECLABS Executive Series, points to this. Respondents claimed that national, political and international news are the most essential topics in their decision to subscribe to a digital news source.


However, what they say they value and what they actually value conflict. Below is a chart illustrating what truly motivates them to subscribe. Through a regression analysis, our researchers discovered a set of factors that best predict the likelihood of a consumer becoming a subscriber. When it came to topics, the content that readers will be challenged to get anywhere else — crosswords and games, editorials and opinions, local news, as well as arts and culture — are the top predictors.


See how this plays out in the real world with an experiment promoting a special offer that the prospect had to opt-in to get. The Control asks visitors to take advantage of special offers without specifying what they’ll get.

The Treatment outlines specifically what subscribers are getting when they sign up for the special offer.


With the changes, the Treatment generated 40% more opt-ins.

Insight #4. Consumers are waiting for you to ask them to engage, so be forward with your call-to-action.

The New York Times experimented with being bolder about asking for subscriptions.

Treatment A invited them to “Experience the Electronic Edition.” It was a soft approach that gave readers one option to purchase, with opportunities to learn more or get a free sample.


Treatment B was far stronger in what it asked of readers with a headline that invited them to “Select Your Subscription Option,” and three opportunities to buy. This was followed up with a call-to-action that invited them to confirm their subscription.


By simply being more forward in asking for subscriptions, from headline to call-to-action, Treatment B generated 64% more subscribers.

So how do you consistently apply these insights to your own marketing? Keep this checklist handy and review it whenever you’re optimizing or developing a digital subscription program.

Checklist: Boost your digital subscriptions

  • Does my page properly communicate the value of digital subscription as a platform, not just the value of my product or service?
  • Is my subscription path seamless, avoiding unnecessary friction or barriers?
  • Am I doing to emphasize the exclusive features of my product or service?
  • Does my page actively ask customers to engage, nudging them toward an eventual invitation to subscribe?


You can follow Andrea Johnson, Copywriter, MECLABS Institute, on Twitter at @IdeastoWords.


You may also like

Newspaper Paywalls and Digital Subscriptions: Research with 900 U.S. news consumers reveals four key insights [From MECLABS Institute, parent company of MarketingSherpa]

Insights From 2,021 U.S. Consumers: Purchase preferences for digital and print newspapers [MarketingSherpa research chart]

Anatomy of a Business Transformation: An executive look at how The Boston Globe drove $3 million in incremental revenue in just one year [From MECLABS Institute, parent company of MarketingSherpa]

Subscription Checkouts Optimized: How experimentation led to compounding gains at the revenue level [From MarketingExperiments Blog]

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