This is the second installment in a series exploring consumer attitudes to publishers’ digital subscription products, based on exclusive research conducted by Toolkits and NRG. New readers can sign up here to receive new data as it’s published.
- 29% of subscribers say the total number of digital publication subscriptions they own has increased over the past 12 months, while just 7% say it has decreased.
- 81% of subscribers currently own subscriptions to more than one digital publication, up from 71% in 2022.
- The groups most likely to own at least one subscription include men, people earning over $100,000 per year, and 25 to 34-year-olds.
People who subscribe to digital publications continue to add more subscriptions to their portfolios, according to research conducted by Toolkits and National Research Group.
In a study of 1,007 U.S. consumers who have subscribed to digital publications, 29% of current subscribers said the total number of subscriptions they hold has increased over the past 12 months, while just 7% said it has decreased. Sixty-four percent said the number of subscriptions they hold has remained consistent.
Eighty-one percent of subscribers said they now own subscriptions to more than one digital publication, up from 71% in 2022.
Products related to news and current affairs (46%), media and entertainment (41%), sports (36%), cooking (29%), and lifestyle (29%) proved the most popular among subscribers for the second year running.
The prominence of news and current affairs on the list is perhaps unsurprising given that many news publishers now require subscriptions to access portions of their content. In other categories, paid subscriptions may be less essential for accessing content since free alternatives tend to be more readily available.
The groups most likely to own at least one subscription include men, people earning over $100,000 per year, and 25 to 34-year-olds.
Implications for publishers
‘Power subscribers’ want more
Research conducted by Toolkits in 2022 revealed that a relatively small but highly engaged group of “power subscribers” – about 4% of the population – accounted for an outsized portion of subscriptions held in the U.S. We suggested at the time that these consumers could reach a saturation point in terms of the number of digital subscriptions they would hold, but the new data imply that appetites for additional subscriptions remain strong.
Twenty-nine percent of subscribers said they have increased their total number of subscriptions over the past 12 months while just 7% said they’ve decreased. What’s more, demand for additional subscriptions among current subscribers appears to be growing: 33% said they expect to increase their number of subscriptions in the future (compared with 27% last year) while 21% now say they plan to reduce their number of subscriptions (compared to 29% last year).
Growth in the number of subscriptions people hold is likely being driven by the continued proliferation of subscription products and subscriber-only content. As more content is placed behind paywalls, more subscriptions are being purchased. The increases may also reflect easing economic tensions: Although economic uncertainty persists, the 2022 data were collected against a backdrop of more acute recession fears.
Ultimately, the data suggest that U.S. consumers have not reached a subscription saturation point – or “peak subscription” – as some have suggested, but remain prepared to add new subscriptions to their portfolios. Individual publishers may see contractions in their subscriber bases even as subscribers maintain more subscriptions, however, as competition continues to grow.
Subscription revenues rely on a relatively small group of consumers
Although strong demand from power subscribers remains, the data suggest that publishers could be increasingly reliant on a relatively small total audience for their subscription revenues. That could leave publishers’ businesses exposed if this group begins to make deep cuts to their subscription portfolios or simply fails to add new subscriptions quickly enough to offset cancelations.
It also suggests that publishers broadly are “preaching to the converted” in terms of the audiences they’re marketing subscriptions to. Attracting, educating and converting first-time subscribers will therefore become essential for further growing the overall market for publication subscriptions.
A growing bundle opportunity
As more consumers add multiple publications to their subscription portfolios, it stands to reason that demand for “bundled” products offering access to content from multiple publications will continue to grow. Eighty-one percent of subscribers said they now own subscriptions to more than one digital publication, up from 71% in 2022.
It remains to be seen if publishers can strike deals with intermediaries – or other publishers – that they believe are in the best long-term interests of their businesses, however. Some publishers – such as The New York Times – are hoping to capitalize on the bundle opportunity by offering consumers access to a range of verticalized products and features via its own “all access” subscriptions. Other publishers are experimenting with licensing or otherwise distributing their content via aggregation services such as Apple’s News+ product, although some have expressed concerns about giving up direct paying relationships with their audiences when working with third-party platforms.
First-time subscribers could unlock incremental growth
Although the data suggest that publishers could continue to add new subscriptions from the “power subscriber” pool for the time being, the importance of unlocking first-time subscribers in order to drive incremental subscriber growth remains clear. Attracting, educating and converting consumers who have never held a digital publication subscription will likely be a growing focus for publishers hunting for subscriber growth in the years ahead, and many are investing in programs to reach younger audiences for that reason.
Methodology: Research was conducted by Toolkits and National Research Group, a global research and insights firm that works with the world’s largest content creators and marketers. The study surveyed 1,007 U.S. consumers aged 18-64 who reported having a current or previous subscription to at least one digital publication and was conducted in October 2023. The audience for this sample was weighted to reflect the pool of total subscribers to digital publications in the U.S., based on a larger market-sizing study of 6,562 consumers.