- 19% of the general population subscribes to at least one digital publication.
- 48% of current subscribers hold 2-5 subscriptions, and 21% have five or more.
- 58% of subscribers say they use their subscriptions daily.
A relatively small group of consumers accounts for an outsized portion of subscriptions to digital publications in the U.S., according to new research conducted by Toolkits and National Research Group.
A study of 2,509 U.S. consumers aged 18-64 found that 19 percent report being subscribed to at least one digital publication, but among those who do subscribe the majority pay for multiple publishers’ products. Forty-eight percent of subscribers said they hold between 2 and 5 subscriptions, while 21 percent reported having five or more.
Among respondents who do not currently pay for subscriptions, 19 percent said they had done so in the past, while 63 percent said they have never subscribed or were unsure. Survey responses were collected in August 2022.
The data imply a relatively small but highly engaged group of “power subscribers” – about 4% of the population – accounts for an outsized portion of subscriptions held in the U.S.
Publishers might interpret this in a number of ways, including:
- There’s room for significant subscriber growth if publishers are able to tap into the 73 percent of U.S. consumers who do not currently hold subscriptions. Framed differently: Reaching and converting consumers in that 73 percent could be crucial for continued growth, particularly for publishers that have already converted large portions of their existing audiences into paying subscribers.
- Publishers are overly reliant on a relatively small group of consumers for subscription revenue. Subscriber bases could contract quickly if those consumers make cuts to their portfolios – perhaps to control spending, or if publishers bump up prices as low introductory rates expire.
- Consumers are open to holding multiple subscriptions. Sixty-nine percent of respondents who pay for subscriptions said they currently pay for more than one, perhaps suggesting competition for subscription dollars isn’t zero-sum. It could also imply that subscribers would be receptive to broader products or “bundles” of products that may negate the need to hold multiple subscriptions.
- Competition for power subscribers’ dollars will continue to heat up. If publishers fail to grow their subscriber bases among the 73 percent of consumers who don’t currently pay for subscriptions, competition will intensify for the attention of the 19% who do, and especially the 4% who subscribe to five products or more.
Subscriber engagement and “sleeper” subscribers
Frequent engagement is a key indicator of healthy subscriber relationships, and the vast majority (92 percent) of subscription holders we surveyed said they engage with at least one of the products they pay for on a weekly basis.
Thirty-two percent said they access subscription content as often as multiple times per day. Twenty-six percent use their subscriptions at least once per day, and 25 percent do so multiple times per week.
However, almost half of subscribers (46 percent) said they subscribe to at least one publication they access less than once per month, suggesting they may derive more value from some products in their subscription portfolios than others (although products can still deliver significant value with infrequent access, of course.)
The 46 percent “sleeper subscriber” number is in line with data released by subscription technology provider Piano in July, which estimated that 43% of subscribers to publishers’ products don’t engage with their websites in any given month. As we’ve noted previously, however, quantifying sleeper subscribers accurately requires a nuanced approach, and many publishers find their most engaged subscribers increasingly interact with their products primarily via email newsletters, audio, and other channels besides their websites.
News and current affairs drive subscription demand
Among respondents who subscribed to digital publications, products related to “news and current affairs” and “media and entertainment” proved the most popular. Thirty-seven percent and 33 percent said they hold subscriptions to publications in these categories, respectively, with products related to sports, cooking and other lifestyle pursuits following.
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.
What’s next: Enticing first-time subscribers
For publishers, the study findings illustrate the importance of attracting and converting first-time subscribers in order to drive subscriber growth.
Power subscribers may have proved relatively easy to convert to date, but it’s safe to assume this group could be approaching saturation point in terms of the number of digital subscriptions they’ll maintain on a long-term basis.
Attracting, educating and converting portions of the 63 percent of consumers who have never held a digital publication subscription will therefore be a focus for those publishers hunting for subscriber growth in 2023 and beyond.
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 2,509 U.S. consumers aged 18-64 and was conducted in August 2022. Participants were selected to be nationally representative (based on most recent US census data) in terms of age, gender, ethnicity, and income.