Nailing your subscription pitch: what gets readers over the line to pay?

What compels readers to pay for news? Four publishers revealed how they get readers over the line, in a panel discussion at Newsrewired on 15 November 2023.

A study came out this year – “Subscribe Now: On the Effectiveness of Advertising Messages in Promoting Newspapers’ Online Subscriptions” – which looked at four generic types of subscription or donation pitches, separately and in combination: digital (online-only offers), social (community-led), normative (support independence), price transparency (critical state of industry). 

It found that it is how publishers combine these appeals that determines how likely people are to pay. Using too few appeals is not convincing enough and too many can be too confusing.

Normative and price transparency appeals are the most attractive combination for general UK audiences, i.e calls to support independent journalism, with a good reason why it needs supporting.

Co-author Dr. Bartosz Wilczek of Ludwig-Maximilians Universität München chaired the discussion at Newsrewired.

Support to survive

Legacy news organisation, the Guardian, shows what that winning combination can look like. Its trailblazing voluntary donation model has attracted more than 1m supporters – not bad when readers can read as much as they like for free, but chip in because they believe journalism should be open to everyone.

So why do people pay? Because the appeals that pop up on its articles stress that the Guardian produces independent journalism (normative) which can only survive if it is supported financially (price transparency).

An article counter is often used, appealing to people who “feel a bit guilty” for reading for free, says Charles Minty, director of digital reader revenues, Guardian. It makes the act of donating £1 or £2 seem much less steep.

The Guardian’s donation appeal with the article counter

“One of the most successful things we’ve ever done is tell people how much they read,” said Minty.

However, pitches often change, particularly for readers in different parts of the world. The publisher has an in-house platform that can test variations of messages depending on the audience, and sometimes, the topic or news story.

Appeals are largely set by editorial rather than marketing teams. A two-person supporter editor team works with UX and optimisation teams to set the regular message that is used across the website and app.

Charles Minty (right) of Guardian. Credit: Mark Hakansson / Mousetrap Media

That comes in handy when referencing the news agenda, such as when Suella Braverman made an infamous attack on “tofu-eating” Guardian readers, which made for handy appeal ammunition.

Embracing the hardships

It is a different story for The Mill Media, a local news startup that has seen great success operating on newsletter platform Substack, having recently acquired new investment.

The group has around 5,000 paying subscribers across its city titles in: Manchester (The Mill), Liverpool (The Post), Sheffield (The Tribune) and Birmingham (The Dispatch)

Founder Joshi Herrmann says that it is mostly the community (social) aspect that gets readers to pay, wanting to “be part of something” that benefits their city, but they need to pay for to gain full access (digital-only), as around half of its content is paywalled.

The Mill’s appeal to free newsletter subscribers

Highlighting its impact despite its small team (normative) is something it also leans into, by surfacing up the local policy changes that have come as a result of their reporting, or even legal letters from lawyers trying to shut them up.

“People respond well if you show them the impact you are having,” says Herrmann, referencing US-community news operation Berkleyside as a core inspiration.

Joshi Herrmann (centre) of The Mill Media. Credit: Mark Hakansson / Mousetrap Media

He has not seen much success in previous attempts to lure people in with free trials, suggesting this appeals more to those who are budget-conscious or undecided. But this strategy might return in future.

Practical value for money

The social aspect alone seems to be enough for Dazed Media, a publication for young creatives – designers, developers, dancers and so on – aged 18-24.

As a 30-year-old title, it has had to rethink its offering. It launched Dazed Club nearly two years ago, with a different sort of appeal for young professionals: practical value in the form of career advice. £5 a month buys the members 1:1s with editors, peer-to-peer support and access to networking events.

Like The Mill Media’s titles, member testimonies make up a large part of its appeal, highlighting the community aspect and broader value.

Testimonies from Dazed Club members

“What converts the most is social and community aspect,” says Harry Slater, director of Dazed Media. “They come alive when they’re in the room together.”

Harry Slater, Dazed Media. Credit: Mark Hakansson / Mousetrap Media

Controlling your own destiny

Another new membership in the work comes from The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, the UK’s largest non-profit newsroom. Since the majority (95 per cent) of its funding comes from foundations – which is on the decline – it has realised it needs to diversify its revenue.

It has just launched Bureau Insider, meaning readers can offer a voluntary, monthly donation to support their work and get exclusive access into how its investigations come together via events and newsletters.

It aims to give readers a more direct and closer relationship with the Bureau (social), such as a way to chip in with story tips and ideas. But it also lays bare the harsh realities of its funding model (price transparency).

An appeal to subscribe to Bureau Insider via its newsletter

It is a switch up from its traditional co-production model, publishing stories alongside partners. This aims to address the funding question, as well as challenges around dwindling public trust towards the media.

The Bureau ran a donation model for a long time, which emphasised the purpose of its work above all else. Pivoting to a formal membership represents a culture shift: a step towards telling its own investigations, and engaging and monetising its own audiences.

Editor and CEO Rozina Breen says that it will aim to start by converting 10 per cent of its 15k newsletter list – i.e. people who are actively interested in its work – leaning not just on purpose, but humanising the reporters who are doing the hard graft.

Rozina Breen (left). Credit: Mark Hakansson / Mousetrap Media

Investigative journalism is expensive to produce both in terms of time and money: a recent investigation into Roman Abramovich required six months of work and at least £100k. The Thurrock Council investigation took nearly four years to report.

Highlighting the deep costs and risks of its work is something that has previously worked for crowdfunding (price transparency), defending the Bureau against legal threats to its reporting (SLAPPs) – though that too was in partnership with The Telegraph and openDemocracy. The same could potentially work for driving memberships. However, Breen stresses she will need to start modestly.

“We can’t offer swag or to download our podcast first. We have to be really clear that what we’re asking for is support for what we do.

“In time, we hope to develop those products as we get investment or change workflows. But consistency of voice, not overpromising and understanding what exactly audiences or communities come to you for [is most important].”

This article was updated on 23 November to add details about The Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s membership Bureau Insider

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