Research identifies the most convincing subscription pitches

By Greg Piechota


Oxford, United Kingdom


If you want to convince readers to pay for online news, tell them how their money supports good journalism and be honest about your financial situation, researchers from Munich, Germany, recommend.

“Understand what your audience wants, offer something that’s hard to get for free elsewhere, and keep your pitches simple and focused,” said Dr. Bartosz Wilczek, one of the study authors, in an interview with INMA.

Academics of Ludwig Maximilian University aimed to find out what kind of marketing messages make people want to subscribe to online news. Over 800 U.K. news consumers were shown different subscription pitches and then asked how much they’d pay for a subscription.

Brand-neutral paywall pages were used to focus solely on the effect of the messaging. Researchers also gathered information about news habits and personal details to control for other factors that might affect willingness to pay, such as age, education, or wealth.

Taxonomy: Bartosz Wilczek, Ina Schulte-Uentrop and Neil Thurman tested four types of appeals:

  • Digital-specific appeals: These spotlighted the unique benefits of online subscriptions, such as personalised content or online-first delivery.

  • Social appeals: These emphasised that reading helps create new relationships and engage with the readers’ community.

  • Normative appeals: These aimed to convince potential subscribers that their contribution sustained independent, inclusive, and watchdog journalism.

  • Price transparency appeals: These disclosed information about the industry’s critical financial situation and reasons for the implementation of a paywall, hoping readers perceive the pricing fair.

Results: The study found single types of subscription pitches don’t really convince people to pay more for online news. 

But, when you combine the normative appeal (telling people their subscription will support quality journalism) with price transparency (explaining the tough financial situation of the news industry), people become more willing to pay.

Adding digital-specific or social appeal to the mix didn’t really help. “Perhaps, the longer and more complex the pitch, the less effective it becomes,” explained Dr. Wilczek.

Additionally, older readers and those who often accessed news on mobile were found more likely to pay. Gender, education, monthly income, and how often someone checked the news on the desktop didn’t really make a difference. 

Other studies: Across countries surveyed by Oxford’s Reuters Institute in 2023, the most frequently stated reason to subscribe for online news is to get access to better quality or more distinctive journalism (on average, 51% payers said it; 48% in the U.K.).

The second reason is identification with the brand and its journalists (44% in the U.K.). Other popular motivations were to help fund good journalism (29%), games and other member benefits, along with a convenient user experience for the Web site and app (21%).

These motivations vary across markets and individual brands. At a 2021 INMA master class, the Institute’s Nic Newman revealed, for example, that among subscribers to The Washington Post 72% paid primarily to help fund good journalism. In the case of The Wall Street Journal, only 39% of subscribers were similarly motivated, and 56% paid simply for better quality or distinctive content.

In the interview, Dr. Wilczek acknowledged the differences and recommended publishers test different appeals to find which ones work for specific brand and reader segments: “Test the combinations and not only individual pitches,” he advised.

The market ceiling: In 2023, Reuters Institute asked the non-payers (on average, 83% of news consumers across markets) what might persuade them to pay: 32% said cheaper or more flexible payment options, 22% said more valuable content, and 13% said an ad-free experience. 

Interestingly, only 42% of non-payers declared nothing could persuade them to pay. Assuming the rest could be persuaded somehow, news publishers theoretically have a shot at quadrupling the number of payers (from an international average of 17% today to 65% of news consumers).

Greg’s Readers First newsletter is a public face of a revenue and media subscriptions initiative by INMA, outlined here. Subscribe here.

About Greg Piechota

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.