“What can we learn from international publishing titles when it comes to reader revenue models?”

It’s an important topic, and one that was at the core of Madeleine White’s session at The Audiencers festival in Paris this September.

Head of International at Poool and Editor-in-Chief of The Audiencers, Madeleine shared how French publishers in the audience can get inspiration from abroad to develop a sustainable reader revenue model and long term success. The key, in her eyes, is for publishers to continuously step outside of their silo, looking outside of their tunneled vision for ideas from others both inside and outside of the publishing industry to not only succeed in achieving their goals but do so without wasting time and resources.

So, what did Madeleine highlight to French publishers looking to achieve exactly this?

  1. Which paywall model has proven the most successful when it comes to converting readers into subscribers?
  2. What is we changed the question around - why Lifetime Value should take a more central role on your KPI dashboard and how registration wall can support this model

1. Metered versus freemium model

The two main paywall models are freemium and metered:

  • Freemium - content is divided between free and paid which means that some content is open while other is reserved for subscribers
  • Metered - readers can access a definite number of articles per month before being blocked by a paywall

Many American publishers (NYT, The Athletic, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal…) use a metered model while freemium models are most popular with French publishers.

premium content tags examples from French publishers

A great number of French publishers divide content into free vs paid, marking premium content with a yellow or gold tag.

But why use one model over the other? What criterion must be taken into account when choosing to use a freemium or a metered model?

User-to-subscriber conversion rate

Which model has better user-to-subscriber conversion rates?

To answer this question, a German consultant recently published a study of the 116 of the world's most successful subscription publishers to measure their ability to convert readers into subscribers via the paywall, by comparing the number of subscribers to the number of pages viewed on the website. The higher the result, the more successful the strategy.

user-to-subscriber conversion rate according to paywall models

Freemium paywalls averaged 7.6 subscribers per 1,000 visits per month while metered models averaged 23 subscribers per 1,000 visits per month.

While this study is interesting, and gives an idea of the success of paywall models, there are many other factors that play a role in subscriber acquisition, apart from the model itself…

Adapting the paywall model to level of maturity

Metered models are often used by the most mature publishers, who have already converted a large percentage of readers and now need to convince those who only consume free content.

For the most part, the publishers in the aforementioned study are fairly mature in their digital subscription models, especially those in the USA, where paywalls are much more established, enabling them to test multiple strategies and develop over time.

However, for less mature publishers, freemium models are often the most popular to start thanks to their short-term success. A publisher can immediately see the value of this model as the most engaged readers convert into subscribers.

Adapting the paywall to cultural expectations

History, tradition and culture in both the audience and the publishers may play a huge part.

For instance, in the Nordics, a large proportion of the public expects news articles to be short and to the point. There are of course longer, more detailed articles, but these are reserved for subscribers.

If these publishers were to use a metered model, and the reader came across and was blocked on a shorter article, they might not see the value of the premium product and therefore not subscribe.

On the other hand, with a freemium model, there is a clear division between the value of articles that are open and those that are closed to non-subscribers.

> Lars K. Jensen discusses this further in his article

Which model should you use then?

Madeleine highlighted that whilst it's important to look at what the media are doing in other countries, also it's important to remember that there are differences between media, countries and readers' expectations, as we saw after studying this study a little more closely.

But what she suggests is to rework this question…

2.What if we reworked the question?

Instead of starting with acquisition, as this study does, perhaps it’s better to start with retention, to see how international media build subscriber loyalty to guarantee a high 'average revenue per subscriber'.

Instead of thinking about the subscription acquisition model, trying to convert as many readers as possible, you should first think about the LTV of each user - Lifetime Value.

Because a conversion rate of 2% with a high LTV is much better for your business than a conversion rate of 20% with a very low LTV, where subscribers churn very quickly.

In other words, we can say that retention and a high LTV start with acquisition.

But how do you put theory into practice?

Madeleine shares that you need to make LTV your north star KPI.

Then, to understand how to acquire subscribers with a high LTV, you need to analyze your most loyal subscribers and ask yourself what "type" of engagement corresponds to high retention rates.

That way you start with the most loyal subscribers instead of starting with acquisition.

“If you can find a link between engagement and loyalty, you'll have a better understanding of how to increase engagement before subscription in order to achieve high conversion and loyalty rates.

For example, the Lenfest Institute found that the likelihood of readers becoming paying subscribers increases most when they read more than 5 articles per month or provide their email address, among other engagement actions.”

best practices for publishers to increase ARPU

Although these engagement features that lead to high LTV will differ from title to title, there’s one model that has proven to increase not only engagement and conversion rates, but also retention rates… registration.

Increasing reader loyalty prior to subscription

To increase LTV even before conversion, publishers can choose to implement a registration wall before the paywall. Registration is one of the most powerful strategies to develop pre-subscription engagement and increase the value of readers who convert.

The New York Times’ subscription funnel: a registration wall before the paywall

The New York Times’ subscription funnel: a registration wall before the paywall

To increase the propensity to subscribe even further, The NYT has created an onboarding path dedicated to new subscribers, with 4 stages considered important by the media to increase loyalty, engagement and the propensity to subscribe.

The New York Times’ registration onboarding

Publishers can even choose to launch a registration strategy before launching their subscription product, as Blick did in Switzerland.

The publisher wanted to take advantage of two of the main interests shared by people in Switzerland - hiking and skiing - to recruit registered users.

One of their initiatives was to place QR codes at the top of 26 mountains in each of Switzerland's 26 regions, encouraging readers to hike to the top, scan the code and win points and prizes. To participate, users need to create a free account.

Blick's registration strategy to increase ARPU

Blick.ch homepage with a registration strategy to drive engagement and ultimately subscriptions

All members acquired through this channel benefit from a tailored welcome path and an email marketing campaign to lead them to Blick's content.

This vertical alone generated 25,000 subscriptions, which was very useful for the subscription model the company recently launched.

The publisher has taken advantage of a shared interest among their readers to create a community of more loyal, engaged readers.


In conclusion, in reviewing international publishing trends, Madeleine revealed valuable insights for increasing publishers' Average Revenue Per User (ARPU).

While metered models demonstrate higher user-to-subscriber conversion rates, the choice between freemium and metered models should be influenced by publishers' maturity, cultural factors and ultimately, the impact of the model on retention rates.

Retention is more important than acquisition, and costs a lot less - don't think of retention as an afterthought. If you analyze what a reader with a high LTV does, you'll be able to put strategies in place prior to subscription and during the onboarding process to encourage those actions that support retention.

As for registration, we have already seen the power of this model around the world, not only in increasing the propensity to subscribe, but also in fostering loyalty. Now more publishers need to take advantage of this to maximize the value of registration with a "reader-first" model that is designed to strengthen loyalty and engagement, aiming to increase the frequency and volume of visits even before a reader subscribes, with the aim of increasing LTV and, above all, your revenues!

Did you miss The Audiencers Festival in Paris? Join us in London on October 12th

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