The consumer’s journey toward subscribing begins with engagement.

How did the recent subscribers we studied engage with their newspaper before deciding to pay? The answers point to important and specific tasks for publications to reach future subscribers.

Publishers must optimize content to be found in search engines. They also must have a robust social strategy—for these casual encounters through social platforms lead to subscribers in bigger numbers than publishers may believe. Having a well-designed and constantly updated website is vital—not just for younger subscribers who form the future of a publication’s base. The data also make it abundantly clear that it is important to make a publication accessible to friends and family of current readers, perhaps through family packages.

Almost all of these practices are even more important to reach younger future subscribers. There will be more on this in the section exploring age-related differences among recent subscribers.

People interacted with a newspaper or its journalists in many ways before subscribing. About 1 in 3 respondents report they used the newspaper before subscribing, and among those 1,371 subscribers, the most common uses were regular website visits, followed by finding it in search, noticing friends and family using it, and buying individual copies.

 Ways they engaged Percent
Regularly visited website 59%
Found content on Google 43%
Used its app 28%
Subscribed to an email newsletter 16%
Registered for news alerts 13%
Friends and family
Read print copies of friends/family 43%
Saw friends share or recommend it 30%
Regularly shared its content 29%
Followed news org on social media 20%
Followed its journalists on social media 16%
Bought individual print copies 40%
Used its coupons 25%
News content products
Went to events it organized 9%
Posted comments 7%
Listened to its podcasts/audio 4%

Data Source: Question: Prior to becoming a paying subscriber to [NAME OF NEWSPAPER], in which of the following ways did you interact with [NAME OF NEWSPAPER]?

Media Insight Project

The data also show that this engagement builds and unfolds over time. News publishers should expect readers to follow a relatively slow, meandering path toward subscribing.

Most new subscribers who used the publication before subscribing, 74 percent, say they were doing so for several months or more, including 49 percent who used it for a year or more before making the decision to pay.

How long they used it before subscribing Percent
A year or more 49%
A few months to a year 24%
Two months or less 26%

Data Source: Question: How long were you getting news from [NAME OF NEWSPAPER] before you decided to subscribe?

Media Insight Project

And frequency of contact seemed to matter. It was valuable for a publication to be part of someone’s life for free on a regular basis. Of those who used the publication before subscribing, more than a third (36 percent) say they were using the publication either in print or digitally for free at least daily before subscribing. Another third (35 percent) say they used the newspaper a few days a week. On the other hand, just 29 percent say a few days a month or less.

Put another way, 7 out of 10 future subscribers who used the paper before subscribing say they were encountering the paper at least a few days a week before paying for it.

Frequency of use Percent
Daily or more 36%
A few days a week 35%
A few times a month or less 29%

Data Source: Question: How often were you getting news from [NAME OF NEWSPAPER] before you decided to subscribe?

Media Insight Project

Background factors related to the publication and the consumer are important to getting people ready to subscribe

Beyond the engagement with the source before subscribing, there are a number of ways that future subscribers recognize how the publication is or could be valuable to them.

We call these “background factors”—elements people say led them to interact with the publication and then gradually moved them toward the decision to subscribe.

We asked people about a list of possible “background” reasons they might have had for interacting with the paper. These were derived from results of a previous survey we did in the spring of 2017.

Some of these background factors relate specifically to the consumer, such as their job, whether their friends or family used it, or whether they had recently moved to the area. Other background factors have more to do with factors that the publication can control, such as offering promotions or free trials or high-quality coverage of a specific topic or issue.

We find that these background motivations are a combination of factors related to the consumer and some that relate to the publication.

For instance, 60 percent of these future subscribers identify their desire to have access to news about their local community as a major factor. The second biggest background factor, significant but not cited by a majority, is that they kept noticing interesting or useful articles (40 percent). Third is that they saw promotional pricing or free trials (35 percent).

These are followed in popularity by people’s desire to support local journalism (31 percent), and that they thought the publication was more accurate and reliable than other free news sources (31 percent). Next, more than a quarter cite interest in a specific subject or beat the paper covered (28 percent).

It is interesting that the publication has influence over four of the top six most important factors leading people to consider subscribing. The publication can influence the quality and usefulness of its content, its promotional pricing and messaging, its accuracy, and the area of beat concentration.

Two of these top six factors relate to things about the consumer over which publications may not have much control—how civically minded someone is and their desire to support local journalism. The publication also can have an impact in making sure that people who don’t subscribe might see their best content, by sustaining a robust social media strategy to distribute the best stories.

Motivation for subscribing Percent
Consumer factors
Wanted access to local news 60%
Wanted to support local journalism 31%
Recently moved to the area 16%
Have more time than before 9%
Have more money than before 8%
Friends or family used it 7%
Got it at work or school 5%
Publication factors
Received discounts / promotions 35%
Want accurate news 31%
Want coverage of a topic 28%
Wanted to get the coupons 20%
Both consumer and publication factors
Noticed many useful articles 40%

Data Source: Question: How important was each of these factors as you considered subscribing to [NAME OF NEWSPAPER]?

Media Insight Project

The Conversion: What gets the credit card out of the wallet?

Even once a publication has news consumers who have engaged with it for months and can recognize several background factors that make them inclined to subscribe—something still has to push them over the edge.

The final decision to subscribe requires a “trigger.”

We asked in two different ways about what finally triggered subscriptions.

In one approach, we asked recent subscribers to recall what triggered their final decision to subscribe from a defined list of 11 different choices.

Discounted subscription pricing comes out as the most important trigger by far, with twice as many people identifying it as any other.

Nearly half of all recent subscribers cited pricing promotions (45 percent). Promotional pricing discounts are cited by more than twice as many people as a trigger—no matter their background motivations—than are any other factor.

Beyond that, about 1 in 5 (21 percent) say they wanted coupons and discounts from ads. Another 16 percent report they were motivated to subscribe after hitting the paywall. The same number say they had just moved to the area, followed by a change in lifestyle.

The chart below offers a sense of these trigger factors, as well as whether these relate to actions the publication can take or whether they are characteristics involving changes in the consumer’s life—though even here a publication can work with employers or real estate companies to identify potential subscribers for outreach as they move in, are hired, or retire.

Publication factors
Discount / promotional offer 45%
Wanted coupons 21%
Kept hitting meter limit 16%
Wanted extra subscriber benefits 10%
Wanted delivery / liked website (VOL) 3%
Wanted fewer online ads 3%
Found the price appealing (VOL) 1%
Consumer factors
Recently moved to the area 16%
Job/life change 12%
Responding to attacks on the press 8%
Looking for coverage of a topic (VOL) 8%
Saw message about supporting journalism 6%
Subscribing is a longtime habit (VOL) 4%
Friends persuaded me to subscribe 4%
Wanted to support journalism (VOL) 1%
Other factors
I cannot recall a specific reason 11%
I had just read an article I really liked 6%
Other 2%
“Likes the paper” (VOL) 1%

Data Source: Question: While people may be thinking about subscribing to a news source for a while, there can be a specific moment or reason that serves as a tipping point when someone makes the decision to subscribe. Which, if any, of the following triggered your final decision to subscribe to [NAME OF NEWSPAPER]?

Media Insight Project

To get an additional perspective on what motivated subscriptions, we first asked these new subscribers to put in their own words why they decided to subscribe. They could say whatever they wanted, perhaps thinking of background factors or immediate triggers. Most people provided one main reason, but some offered up to three. We then categorized those answers to find common themes.

These answers show that the news content and quality of coverage is top-of-mind for new subscribers. They most often cite wanting local news coverage, with 30 percent of them reporting this without prompting. A desire for a news source that covers a particular topic or issue (12 percent) is also prevalent. In addition, about 1 in 10 say they had a desire for a trustworthy or quality publication (9 percent).

At the same time, convenience and price certainly matter. About 15 percent say the convenience of print and home delivery was important to their decision to subscribe. A similar number (12 percent) say they subscribed because of a promotion or discount on the subscription. In addition, 8 percent say they subscribed to get access to coupons, ads, or other savings.

Fewer respondents cite supporting journalism, a long relationship or fond memories of the publication, liking the news or a number of interesting articles they saw in the publication, and various other reasons. To us, that is interesting. These are new subscribers, and it is clear that there are many ways to reach out to them and persuade them that have nothing to do with a long history with the publication.

Just 3 percent mention a paywall or article limit in this open-ended question.

Local news 30%
Convenience of print/home delivery 15%
Topical focus 12%
Promotion/discount 12%
Trust/quality 9%
Ads/coupons 8%
Support journalism 5%
Long relationship/fond memories 4%
Useful/interesting 4%
New resident 4%
Habit 4%
Convenience of digital/updates 3%
Paywall/access 3%
Friends and family 2%
Other 1%
Job 1%
Personal change in circumstances 1%

Data Source: Question: Describe in your own words why you decided to subscribe to [NAME OF NEWSPAPER]. [Open-ended response]

Media Insight Project

The variety of reasons respondents’ express for subscribing highlights that there are many possible factors that motivate people to pay for news. Different combinations of background factors, triggers, and self-identified motives can emerge. Later in this report, we identify nine groups or paths that an individual subscriber may fall into, each leading to a distinct strategy for publishers to follow.


Share with your network

You also might be interested in:

  • By sending data from their targeted audiences in Adobe Analytics into MFN, Crain was able to more clearly understand what topics, categories, and even story types were engaging readers in key parts of their coverage area.

  • Ways to support conversations for balancing innovation and stability in your news organization, essential considerations about this often overlooked topic, and guidance to include them in your technology decisions.

  • Successfully and efficiently marketing your work can be hard, especially for local news teams with limited resources, but marketing yourself to your audience is an essential skill for news organizations to drive revenue and promote sustainability.