This is the fifth installment in a series exploring consumer attitudes to publishers’ digital subscription products, based on research conducted by Toolkits and NRG. New readers can sign up here to receive new data as it’s published.
- 58% of digital publication readers say they look for ways to get around publishers’ paywalls without paying, down slightly from 63% in 2022.
- 68% say they avoid clicking links to websites they know use paywalls, down from 73% last year.
- Millennials and Gen Z are more likely than older consumers to avoid sites with paywalls and look for ways to get around them without paying.
Over half of digital publication readers say they regularly look for ways to access paywalled content without paying, and two-thirds say they avoid sites with paywalls entirely, according to new research by Toolkits and National Research Group.
In a study of 1,007 U.S. consumers who have subscribed to digital publications, 58% said they typically look for ways to get around publishers’ paywalls without paying when they encounter them, down slightly from 63% who reported doing so in August 2022.
Sixty-eight percent said they avoid clicking links to websites they know use paywalls, down from 73% last year. And almost as many, 67%, also said they avoid clicking links to sites they know use registration walls.
Millennials (63%) and Gen Z (62%) are more likely than older consumers to look for ways to get around paywalls without paying.
The most common methods for circumventing publishers’ paywalls include searching for the same content on other websites, using incognito browser modes, opening sites in different browsers or devices, deleting cookies and browsing data, and using dedicated paywall evasion tools.
Implications for publishers
Declines in circumvention rates could be a positive sign
Although a significant number of readers continue to try to circumvent paywalls, they say they’re doing so slightly less than last year. This might be explained by one or more of the following factors:
- Economic conditions have eased: Consumers may be more willing to pay to access content than in 2022 when inflation was at its height and fears of a recession were more acute.
- Satisfaction with subscription products is growing: More consumers are satisfied with the value for money they get from publishers’ digital subscription products now than in 2022, and engagement with them is growing too. Readers might be more comfortable with paying for access to publishers’ content if they’re confident in the value they’ll receive.
- Discounts and free trials are readily available: Publishers have leaned heavily on free trials and discounted introductory subscription offers in recent years, and a portion of consumers may have opted to accept those offers rather than attempting to circumvent. Forty-nine percent of subscribers say they actively “hop around” and try different subscriptions with the intention of canceling those they don’t get value from.
- Publishers are securing their content more tightly: In response to growing consumer interest in paywall circumvention, some publishers have taken stronger measures to secure their content and mitigate paywall circumvention. If consumers are able to bypass paywalls less reliably they may be less likely to attempt to do so.
Of course, declines in circumvention rates could also reflect a declining interest in accessing publishers’ content generally. News publishers, for example, are well aware that demand for their output has softened in the wake of the Trump presidency and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Converting new subscribers could become increasingly challenging
Research suggests that consumers have not yet reached “peak subscription”, and that people who subscribe to digital publications are continuing to add more subscriptions to their portfolios. Nevertheless, it stands to reason that consumers will eventually reach a saturation point in terms of the number of subscriptions they hold, and/or that aggregation services and other bundles might gain traction in the years ahead. Against that backdrop, the finding that 68% of readers say they avoid clicking links to websites with paywalls may pose a challenge for publishers looking to reach and engage new audiences and prospective subscribers. Attracting new subscribers could become more challenging if their consumption habits and content diets become more narrowly oriented around the handful of subscriptions they already pay for.
Convincing younger consumers to pay remains a challenge
Enticing younger subscribers remains both a priority and a challenge for many publishers. On one hand, the fact that Millennials and Gen Z are more likely than older consumers to attempt to access paywalled content without paying implies there’s demand for that content among those audiences. On the other, it may suggest publishers have work to do when it comes to convincing younger audiences to part with their dollars, and/or stopping them from accessing their content illegitimately.
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.