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Yes, there’s still room for subscription growth

November 7, 2023 | By Rande Price, Research VP – DCN

The subscription-based model is is one of the foundational models of the digital media marketplace. It offers predictive and reoccurring revenue, reduces reliance on advertising, and provides a deeper customer relationship. The subscription business also comes with challenges ― conversion, churn, and subscription fatigue. Understanding consumers is essential for subscription-based businesses to optimize customer acquisition, improve customer retention, and stay competitive in the market.

New research, No sign of peak subscriptions conducted by Toolkits and the National Research Group, offers insight into consumer attitudes to publishers’ digital subscription products. The research findings indicate that 29% of subscribers report an increase in their subscriptions over the past year. In contrast, only 7% reported a decrease in their subscriptions during the same period, suggesting a lack of subscription saturation.

The rise of the “power subscribers

Toolkit’s 2022 research revealed that a relatively compact yet deeply involved segment of “power subscribers” accounted for an outsized portion of subscriptions in the U.S. This group comprises approximately 4% of the population and does not show signs of subscription saturation. Further, this year’s data suggests that consumer’s appetite for additional subscriptions remains strong.

In fact, one-third of current subscribers (33%) anticipate increasing their subscriptions in the future, compared to 27% last year. Conversely, only 21% of subscribers plan to reduce their subscriptions compared to 29% in 2022. The availability of more subscription products and subscriber-only content likely contributes to this trend.

Subscription revenue and audience dynamics

While power subscribers continue to drive demand, reliance on a relatively small audience is not a strong business plan. If power subscribers reduce their subscriptions significantly or fail to add new ones, it would pose a strong risk to the subscription revenue stream.

The research highlights that attracting and converting first-time subscribers is essential to sustain growth in the digital media subscription market. Publishers must focus on reaching new audiences and investing in programs that target younger demographics. Consumers most likely to subscribe to at least one subscription include men, people earning over $100,000 annually, and those 25 to 34-year-olds.  

Thinking about targeting across content categories could offer new subscriber acquisition opportunities. Top subscriber categories include those in news and current affairs (46%) and media and entertainment (41%) for the second consecutive year. Following closely in the rankings are sports (36%), cooking (29%), and lifestyle (29%).

Importantly, unlocking incremental growth depends on attracting first-time subscribers. Increasing investment in programs and strategies targeting younger audiences and educating them about the value of digital subscriptions is essential to sustain growth.

The power of a good bundle

The study shows that 81% of subscribers report owning subscriptions to more than one digital publication, up from 71% last year. As the number of subscribers owning multiple digital publications increases, there is an opportunity for bundled products. However, working with intermediaries offers challenges, specifically relinquishing the direct relationship with audiences to third-party platforms.

The subscription model is a vital and growing business in digital media. The availability of more subscription products and exclusive content contributes to this positive trend. To sustain the growth in direct consumer revenue, digital media companies must attract new audiences while super-serving their core power subscriber segment.

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