Axel Springer research: Content that evokes fear also evokes cancellations

By Amalie Nash


Denver, Colorado, United States


Are your readers more likely to cancel a digital subscription after signing up to read a story with a fearful or a hopeful tone?

It’s an interesting question and not one I’ve seen asked before. 

Janis Kitzhofer, senior manager/editorial insights and development for Germany-based Axel Springer, recently dug into immediate cancellations to see whether they showed any patterns. Specifically, it was fairly easy for his team to look at readers who subscribed based on a specific story — Axel Springer has a freemium paywall where 20%-30% of stories are subscriber-only — and cancelled within the same session.

“This is easier to track than consumer lifetime value,” Kitzhofer explained. “It was not a scientific approach, but we wanted to look at positive or negative articles.”

While his analysis included multiple topics, the most clear finding related to content published about the Ukraine war. The analysis covered content published from June 2022 to November 2023. 

At the time, Bild — within Axel Springer’s portfolio — was publishing a lot of content on the war. Some of those stories evoked feelings of fear: stories about nuclear war or the latest from Russian President Vladimir Putin. Other stories had a more hopeful tone, highlighting the successes of the Ukrainian army, efforts to win back villages and more.

While both types of premium content got roughly the same volume of conversions per story, there was a stark difference when it came to cancellations: Stories with fear as the prevailing emotion had far higher immediate cancellations. 

“If we have an article that makes a lot of subscriptions in absolute numbers but people cancel right away, it is not probably the best premium article,” Kitzhofer said. “There was a very clear picture that those who sign up for articles that are more hopeful will have much lower immediate cancellations. Those aimed for fear did not have a lot of value.”

That finding is closely aligned with the user needs model, which aims to understand the motivations of readers. Kitzhofer said data shows people will read to the end of “help me” and “inspire me” stories, an indicator that positive stories work.

At Axel Springer, reach is the most important metric. 

“Readers feeling bad is not of value,” Kitzhofer said. “This ties back to user needs and negative ‘update me’ stories.”

The key is to find balance, he said, adding he’d like to see cancellations beyond the immediate session analysed in the same way.

“The editors said they never thought about it, and it’s a very valuable insight,” Kitzhofer said. “They work at much more of an operational level than we do.”

What’s next: Kitzhofer’s team is working on a live analytics tool that would show in real time how negative and positive their Web site is using AI.

“It would say, hey, if the Web site is 70% negative, we should publish some more positive news,” he said.

His advice for other media companies? The more focused you are on a subscription model, the more important it is to be conscious about the psychological meaning of value.

“Most people don’t want to spend money on something that leaves them with a negative feeling,” Kitzhofer said. “It doesn’t have to be all about solution-journalism that is aimed at changing lives in a mid- to long-run, but it can simply be something entertaining that makes you feel good right away for a short period of time.”  

If you’d like to subscribe to my bi-weekly newsletter, INMA members can do so here.

About Amalie Nash

By continuing to browse or by clicking “ACCEPT,” you agree to the storing of cookies on your device to enhance your site experience. To learn more about how we use cookies, please see our privacy policy.