What makes a digital news reader decide to become a subscriber?

This is a fundamental question that we in the digital news media business ask ourselves every day.

To get a new perspective on this question, we at the Consumer Insight Group at The New York Times spoke with our readers to render a “mental map” of our engaged, but non-subscribing, Web site visitors as they make the decision to subscribe to other digital entertainment and information sources.

Here’s what we found. Digital subscribers are born when three requirements are met, namely:

  1. They develop a habit with the product.

  2. They are confronted with a decision: pay to continue, or not pay and lose access.

  3. They can justify the cost.

Develop a habit

First, the prospective subscriber has to have the opportunity to try the product and use it regularly. She might even put in an investment of time to learn about its offerings and personalise the experience (creating a playlist, for example).

The product, in turn, responds by presenting increasingly relevant recommendations and functionality (nytimes.com’s article recommendations, for example). During this period, communications with the consumer should be focused on positive incentives and user experience tips to show how relevant and delightful the product can be.

The decision point

The consumer is then asked to pay for a subscription or lose access. In essence, she is forced to imagine her life without her new habit.

According to Nir Eyal, author of Hooked (a book about building habit-forming products), “The more users invest time and effort into a product or service, the more they value it.” If the potential subscriber has personalised her experience, she risks losing the work she put into the product to make her experience just so.

Is the price right?

We found that the decision to pay for digital content is easiest when users have simple referents to figure out if it is worth it. The example most frequently cited during our research was that the monthly fee for streaming movies on demand is about the same as renting two movies. If you watch at least two movies a month, it makes the purchase decision simpler.

Other considerations that drive this decision include the following:

  • They get access to exclusive content and unique information they couldn’t get anywhere else (e.g., original programming, in-depth reporting, hyper-local information).

  • They can cancel the subscription at any time.

  • Users think it could be a primary source for this type of content or information.

As digital news brands, we can use this mental map to align our subscription experiences with our readers’ expectations. It is a tool that helps us identify opportunities to improve the customer experience as well as our business results.