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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

How to increase your subscriber base despite the economic downturn

August 17, 2022 | By Joel Bejar, SVP Business Development – OpenWeb @OpenWebHQ

Throughout the pandemic and well into 2022, the narrative in publishing was simple: subscriptions are the future. With third-party cookies on the way out and traffic from social media less reliable than ever, subscriptions emerged as the stable revenue source digital media had been seeking for well over two decades. And the numbers backed it up. When the New York Times hit 10 million digital subscribers it was was touted throughout the industry. And numerous otheroutlets have reported a surge in paying customers.

Some deflation was probably inevitable, and in the last few months it’s started peeking over the horizon. Reuters’ Annual Digital News Report was bullish on subscriptions in 2020 and 2021, but this year’s installment says that “there are signs that overall growth might be leveling off.” NiemanLab, citing data from paywall tech company Piano, also recently reported that “a significant number of new subscribers cancel their digital subscriptions within a day.”

There is no question that subscriptions are still a highly viable revenue source, and will remain so for the indefinite future. But outlets that want to maintain and expand their subscriber base in a challenging, competitive environment will need to develop a deeper sense of what keeps readers subscribing––and what brings them onboard in the first place.

What drives readers to subscribe––and renew?

Access to quality content 

The common wisdom used to be that your best stories should go outside the paywall because those were the stories most likely to bring in new users (and help boost pageviews and ad dollars in the process). 

Recently, though, some have turned that common wisdom on its head, with intriguing results. Look at Business Insider: in recent years they’ve aggressively paywalled some of their biggest scoops, and have grown their subscriber base significantly in the process. Scoop, of course, is the key word here. Users are willing to pay for the kind of distinctive content they can’t get for free elsewhere.

Feeling part of a community

As the big social platforms know well, community is the “stickiest” thing a company can offer. Nothing draws users back more reliably than vibrant on-site conversation. Data from OpenWeb’s network of 1,000+ global publishers shows that those who engage with the conversation view 4.5X more pages. They also spend 3.6X more time on-site, and drive 3.2X more revenue than non-engaged users. Better yet, on average, 25% of these users return monthly. Publishers have been trying to turn their websites into social hubs for over a decade now. But with Facebook effectively abandoning the social news space as it pivots to TikTok-style videos, publishers have more breathing room to cultivate communities of their own. 

Subscriber perks

The last few years have seen more attention paid to what InPublishing calls a “rounded membership proposition”––i.e., everything an outlet offers besides its content. This can take countless forms: from puzzle games (like the New York Times’ Wordle) to subscriber-only podcasts, newsletters, Discord communities, cooking courses, and more. These can go a long way towards that “bang for your buck” feeling that keeps subscriptions off the chopping block.


According to the Piano data referenced earlier, 40% of subscribers are “sleepers”––i.e., people who don’t interact with their subscription at all. As it happens, a large percentage of these people cancel the moment they “wake up.” 

The solution? Prevent them from falling asleep in the first place, through interactive content. Things like expert AMAs, live blogs, and staff Q&As are simple to set up and great for retention: they force users to come to your site at specific times and get them used to checking your content regularly.

Appeal of individual journalists

At this point, certain journalists are minor celebrities in their own right––and publishers should do everything they can to harness that star power. The New York Times’ newsletters do an excellent job of this. However, every publication has actual or potential stars, and cultivating them can go a long way towards boosting reader loyalty.

Subscriber acquisition starts with knowing readers better

When publishers expand the scope of their content offerings, they create a positive feedback loop. Comments sections, subscriber posts, journalist Q&As––these things keep readers on-site for longer and grant publishers fine-grained insight into how their content is resonating. That data can then be used to further refine subscription offerings, bringing in even more users and even more data, which can then––well, you get the idea. Figuring out precisely what your audience wants is a difficult task, and no one size fits all. But knowledge in this arena is inevitably cumulative––data begets data, every time.

Even the most optimistic observer of the ’20s subscription surge knew, on some level, that it couldn’t last forever. A leveling-out was always in the cards. For publishers, accepting the challenge of this moment means getting creative––experimenting, seeing what works, and building the kind of audience that will stick with you through this downturn and long beyond it.

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