This is the latest installment in a series exploring consumer attitudes to publishers’ digital subscription products, based on research conducted by Toolkits and NRG.
- 30% of consumers believe that paid content is higher quality than free content, while 10% say free content is higher quality.
- 25% of consumers have more trust in publications that require a subscription, while 13% trust publications that are free to access more.
Consumers believe publishers’ content is generally higher quality and more trustworthy when they have to pay to access it, according to research by Toolkits and National Research Group.
In a study of 1,007 U.S. consumers who have subscribed to digital publications, 30% of respondents said they believe content they must pay to access is higher quality than content that’s available for free, and 25% said they have more trust in publications that require a subscription. Ten percent said they view free content as higher quality and 13% said they trust free publications more.
Cause and effect
The correlation between paywalled content and consumer perceptions of quality and trust is clear, but the factors driving those attitudes are open to interpretation. Several explanations are plausible, including:
Better business models: Publishers have gravitated towards subscription offerings and paid content access in recent years largely because they believe audience revenue can help fuel healthier and more sustainable businesses. That theory may be proving true, as challenges with ad-supported models mount and publishers with audience revenue components to their businesses fare better than those without. It stands to reason that healthy, stable, and sustainable media businesses might be likelier to produce high-quality and trustworthy content.
Improved user experience: Publishers that generate revenue directly from their audiences are often less reliant on advertising and can offer improved user experiences as a result. Some offer paid readers ad-free or ad-light experiences, while the data associated with logged-in or known users can often help boost ad relevancy – all of which can help boost consumer perception of quality and trust. Consumers may not dislike advertising in and of itself, but publishers frequently find that improvements in user experience correlate with increased perceptions of quality, trust and value.
Marketing and product positioning: Publishers that ask consumers to pay for content often go to great lengths to position it as higher quality and more trustworthy. Whether that’s true is subjective and difficult to quantify, but marketing messaging and product positioning alone might influence consumer perception, to some degree, regardless of the nature of the underlying content on offer.
Confirmation bias and behavioral psychology: Publishers increasingly find that subscription products and other audience revenue approaches enable them to more closely align their business needs with their editorial missions and the interests and needs of their audiences. While audience revenue might help underpin more viable business models, however, there’s also an argument to suggest it incentivizes publishers to pander to audiences by playing to their existing beliefs and biases. That, in turn, may influence perceptions of quality and trust. Elements of behavioral psychology come into play as well. Consumers often ascribe more value to products and services simply because they own them or because they’ve paid to access them, for example.
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.