Grow Subscribers

How to Grow Subscribers with Free Content

Is putting up a paywall the right approach to grow subscribers at your publication? After years of industry momentum encouraging digital publishers to put up hard paywalls, the tides are slowly shifting.

According to research by the American Press Institute’s Media Insights Project, nearly half (47%) of new subscribers say running out of free articles on a publisher’s website has pushed them to pay for a subscription.

The number of publishers putting up hard paywalls may be on the decline, with a growing number of publishers now recognizing the benefits of soft paywalls or metered paywalls.

Metered paywalls are a type of soft paywall. With a metered paywall, readers are allowed to access a certain number of articles for free before being required to pay. Usually the set number of free articles resets each month. So, for example, a reader might be allowed to access 10 articles each month before a paywall appears.

The New York Times is one of the largest publications to adopt the metered paywall strategy. The Times’ metered service has been around since 2011.

Metered paywalls benefit digital publishers in a few different ways. The most obvious is that they give readers a taste of what they’re missing. With a hard paywall, readers can’t access any articles, and they don’t realize how great the publication is. Without a paywall, readers can access all the content they want for free, and they have no incentive to pay for a subscription.

The Value of Registered Users

Metered paywalls offer another benefit that many publishers overlook. Metered paywalls go hand-in-hand with website registrations, and free registrations present an exceptional opportunity to grow subscribers.

Publishers who are looking to grow subscribers will often ask readers to register for free accounts in order to access content. The process is free, and the majority of readers believe the opportunity to access content outweighs the hassles of registration.

Savvy publishers should take advantage of the information that readers share during the registration process. For example, email addresses should be used for follow up marketing purposes. Publishers can also have an opt-in option for subscribing to email newsletters. Registered users are significantly more likely to become digital subscribers than anonymous users, even when controlling for the number of times a user visits each month.

Requiring readers to register for access also enables publishers to better monitor onsite behaviors and make more personalized content recommendations. These types of personalized content recommendations drive more paid subscriptions by ensuring that readers are finding relevant articles each time they visit.

One of the more modern approaches to grow subscriptions through registrations is the one deployed by GateHouse Media, which joined together with Gannett in 2019. That approach involves using a two-five meter. Readers can access two articles for free before they’re asked to register to access three more articles. After accessing those three more articles—for a total of five—the reader must sign up for a paid subscription before they can access additional content.

The freemium model is a lesser-discussed option for publishers that are willing to curate which articles appear behind the paywalls on their websites. In the freemium model, users can access a mix of content without signing up for a paid subscription or registering for an account. However, the publisher’s editorial team decides which content is placed behind the paywall. That content is often known as premium content. So, a brief news report might be accessible for free, while an in-depth article is considered “premium” and made available exclusively for paying subscribers.

Which Subscription Growth Strategy Is Best?

High profile media organizations almost exclusively rely on soft or metered paywalls. That’s because the metered paywall approach works best for high-profile publications that publish a high volume of content.

Smaller publishers can sometimes set their meters too high, and as a result, they may lose out on some potential subscribers. Pinpointing the right number of free stories to give out each month, before requiring a registration or subscription for more access, is both an art and a science. Publishers can try offering different numbers of articles to different groups of users to see how those changes influence subscription growth.

Being comfortable using Google Analytics, and other advanced website analytics tools, can give digital publishers a leg up as they work to grow subscribers with free content.

To learn more about the best paywall strategies for digital publishers, read The Best Paywall Software for Magazine Publishers.