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July 11, 2024

Top newsbrands for converting readers to subscribers revealed

Analysis shows how many paying readers are among their online audiences of major subscription newsbrands

By Aisha Majid

Press Gazette has updated its ranking of leading subscription newsbrands with the highest ratio of digital subscribers to online audience.

Topping the list of brands included in our analysis once again are The Athletic and News Corp financial title Barron’s, which both had conversion rates of above or close to 20% – well above most industry benchmarks.

Monthly unique global visitors to The Athletic’s desktop and mobile websites averaged 11.2 million in the 12 months between June 2023 and May 2024 according to digital intelligence platform, Similarweb. This is stacked up against its 2.9 million subscribers as of March 2024.

Barron’s averaged 4.8 million monthly visitors in the last year compared to its 900,000 subscribers.

They were followed by Wall Street Journal with 24.7 million monthly visitors, 2.7 million subscribers, giving it a conversion rate of 15%.

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As with the first time we created this ranking in April last year, we looked at single newsbrands (i.e. not publishing houses) included as part of our 100k Club digital subscriptions ranking. We also used publisher membership organisation FIPP’s digital subscriptions snapshot from the last quarter of 2023 to identify well-known non-English language newsbrands.

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We focused on newsbrands with at least or close to 100,000 subscribers that had data available from 2023 or later. This gave us an additional 17 news titles to add to our list from countries including Spain, France, Germany and Norway.

Note on workings: As publishers are not tied to one standard as to how they report digital subscribers (some may include subscribers with access to other products such as print products or e-paper subscriptions), our figures should be taken as a ballpark. Some publishers may also report subscribers on free trials or deeply discounted rates. Our ranking is designed to give a snapshot of how some of the biggest names in reader revenue are faring in converting their audiences to paying consumers.

There’s no one set way to calculate the ratio of subscribers to online reach, often called the “conversion rate”. Some publishers look at conversion of unique visitors to their digital properties; others prefer to look at conversion as a percentage of the sessions they have on their site, while some also take into account the percentage of the population in their region, which is how newspapers had traditionally approached this. Similarly, website traffic can vary between measurement standards such as Google Analytics, Similarweb and other providers.

[Download’s Press Gazette’s Ultimate Guide to Acquisition, Conversion and Monetisation for Publishers]

To calculate the subscription conversion rate, for each title we divided its latest subscriber number based on publicly available data or information shared with Press Gazette and divided this by their monthly average global mobile and desktop web visitors over the last year.

Since a large part of our list is based on members of our 100k Club which by definition have at least 100,000 digital subscribers as well as the better-performing overseas brands tracked by FIPP, naturally our list will capture newsbrands that have successful digital subscriptions strategies and will likely have a good ratio of digital subscribers to web visitors. It is also worth considering that while benchmarking against other publishers is useful, conversion rates vary based on things such as target market size, audience size, and how long the paywall has been in place.

According to research among 166 publishers by the International News Media Association (INMA) at the end of 2022, the median publisher had a conversion rate of 0.6%, while the 25% of brands who performed best had a rate of at least 1.4% , suggesting that our list includes a number of particualrly high performers.

Greg Piechota, a researcher at INMA, says however that the last year has been positive for many newsbrands who have continued to grow both volume and revenue from digital subscriptions.

Of 238 newsbrands looked at by INMA, the median newsbrand increased its number of digital-only subscriptions by 14% in the first three months of this year compared to the same period in 2023, while total revenue from digital-only subscriptions was up by 19.5% during the same period.

What sets apart newsbrands with higher conversion rates?

Many things factor into how successful a publisher is at converting its audience to paying readers. These include how long the publisher has had a paywall in place, as those that have had longer to build up their paywalls will likely have a better ratio. The Wall Street Journal and New York Times, which are both among our ten best performers, have had paywalls in place for over a decade with the WSJ a particularly early mover having charged for its content since 1995.

They are among seven brands on our list with a conversion rate of over 10% which include five specialist titles focused on areas such as sports, consumer reviews or finance - The Athletic, Barron's, Wall Street Journal, Which, Us Weekly - as well as The Economist and Norwegian news daily Aftenposten.

Content and brand, says Piechota, is a key factor driving conversion success which can help explain the success of niche titles, particularly those focused on high-paying audiences.

"Brand preference is paramount. It is built over years of publishing distinctive journalism, providing convenient user experience, and gaining a reputation for breaking news."

But the news cycle makes a difference too: a big story can make a subscription title. INMA research comparing new paywalls launched a year before the pandemic with those launched right after the outbreak found that those that were able to take advantage of audience's eagerness for news about the pandemic did best.

"Brands that set up a paywall before Covid-19 grew five to six times faster than those that were late," says Piechota.

Katelyn Belyus, who leads strategy and analytics at audience intelligence company Piano which counts DMG Media and Fortune among its clients, says customer experience also matters.

"It's about understanding what appeals to your audience and tailoring your subscription messaging and offers accordingly, ensuring that price and terms are displayed in front of audiences who are most likely to engage and convert. By targeting the right offer to the right audience, you can optimise conversion rates further."

For people that are perhaps new to your brand, encouraging registration, she says, is key. For those that are already a little more engaged, a trial price can entice them to engage more deeply, while for those that already have the highest propensity to sign up and pay, presenting the full price ensures maximum revenue potential.

Research, she says, shows that conversion often depends on visitor loyalty and engagement. One-time visitors, those who visit once and never return, rarely convert, which is significant since about two-thirds of site visitors never return.

Direct visitors and those arriving from email campaigns, in contrast, tend to have the highest conversion rates. Engaging audiences quickly is also essential she says. Approximately 45% of people who convert do so within their first active day on a website, while another 20% convert on their second day.

What kind of paywall?

While some publishers have seen success with soft paywalls which allow readers to try some content before being asked to pay, Piechota says that fast-growing brands are those that are simply confident in asking for money. "They have tighter paywalls and expose many more users to offers than slower-growing brands," he says. This includes several newsbrands near the top of our list including the Athletic, Barron’s and the Wall Street Journal that have hard paywalls in place.

With the crisis in ad-funded news, Piechota is optimistic that reader-supported strategies can pay off. "I see no indication of the news avoidance or subscription fatigue that many editors worry about," he says. News avoiders, he says, tend to be the poorer, less educated, and less politically active groups that have long been less inclined to pay for news. "These segments are not typically prioritised in subscription marketing," he says.

Success for a number of publishers on our list has come despite steep rises in subscription costs for some of the leading names. Research by Press Gazette earlier this year found that the price of a digital news subscription had risen by 19% on average among a group of titles in the UK over the last year, which included the Financial Times, Bloomberg, the Telegraph and the Times - all newsbrands with conversion rates (based on our metric) that are higher than the median rate found by INMA.

Yet, although Piechota says brands that have opted for steep price rises have in some cases seen a slowdown in the growth in the volume of their subscriptions (although revenue might not have slowed), he believes there is still room for growth.

"A median national newsbrand reaches less than 1% of households in its market with digital-only subscriptions," he says. "Clearly, there is no ceiling. It's like standing in front of the One World Trade Center in Manhattan and mistaking the first floor for the observatory on the 100th floor. I have been there, and the difference in the perspective is significant."

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Select and enter your email address Weekly insight into the big strategic issues affecting the future of the news industry. Essential reading for media leaders every Thursday. Your morning brew of news about the world of news from Press Gazette and elsewhere in the media. Sent at around 10am UK time. Our weekly does of strategic insight about the future of news media aimed at US readers. A fortnightly update from the front-line of news and advertising. Aimed at marketers and those involved in the advertising industry.
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