Meet the Subscription Accelerator™ Part 1: The Free Subscription Level

A Method for More Subscriptions

Decades of experience have given us a pretty clear idea of how to maximize your subscription success. Now we’re shaping all of that knowledge into a formal method we call the Subscription Accelerator™.

The Subscription Accelerator™ gives you step-by-step instructions on how to make your digital publication profitable with subscriptions and more.

Here’s an overview of the first step, The Free Subscription Level. (Check out Episode 17 of the Paywall Podcast for the full rundown, below.)

The Highlights

  • The bulk of your readers come to you from organic search and they are casual readers. They’ll read the one specific article on the topic they searched, maybe one more, and then leave.
  • Your content functions as your ‘lead magnet’: you have a lot of it and it’s amazing. That’s what draws them and in and that’s what keeps them in. Pull it forward, promote it, let it shine.
  • Once you have their attention, the goal with casual readers is to capture their email address.
  • Why their email address? 
    • Email capture makes them 10x more likely to become paid subscribers (at least).
    • Email is your number one direct marketing tool. It allows you build a relationship over time with regular but not demanding contact, a process we call ‘organic pestering’.
    • Receiving emails from you keeps you at top of mind for readers. Sending them teasers of your content reminds them of why they sought you out in the first place and prompts them to return to your publication for more.
    • Bonus: A growing email list (and the more prolific pageviews that follow) makes you more attractive to advertisers who may be looking to sponsor their content.
  • Your absolute best marketing move of 2021 will be to set up a free subscription level. Offer them more of that shining content, in exchange for an email address.
  • When you set it up properly, your traffic will go up, because you’ve given them both a reason to return (your amazing content) and a reminder to return (the emails teasing them on your amazing content).
  • How to capture their email
    • The simplest way to capture an email is by getting them to sign up for your newsletter, via pop-up or slide-in requests. It does work (and it will still work, even after you set up a free subscription level. You can just stop it from bugging your logged-in subscribers).
    • The downsides: pop-ups can be annoying, particularly on mobile, where they dominate the screen. Also, your messaging is often murky; a slide-in doesn’t give you much room to tell them why they should sign up for your newsletter.
    • The best way to capture an email address is to offer something in return. And that’s what your Free Subscription Level does. It offers them access to more content, in exchange for their email address.
  • The Free Subscription Level
    • It works like this:
      • Your casual reader follows a link to your content (via search or social or other promotion). T.hey read the article.
      • As they read, they see a headline (along the side, promoted in the middle, suggested at the end), that also sounds interesting. They click on that and your paywall shows them the article page, but with a message telling them they’ve run out of free articles…but they can get more, in exchange for an email address. (An organic subscription nag, occurring in the content of the article. No pop-ups required.)
      • They follow that prompt to a very simple registration page – no need to enter payment info, just a one-page account set-up.
      • They are re-directed back to their desired article.  You now have their email address and a tag on their account that designates them as a ‘free level’ subscriber (so you can target them down the road.)
      • Now that you have their email address, you can start sending them emails: your newsletter teasing your new content.
      • Every time they follow that content back to your site, they’re using up some of their roster of free articles, until eventually, they trigger the message to become a paid subscriber for full access. Eventually, they’ll join.
    • The beauty of this method is that it targets the reader at exactly the moment they want to read. They’ve already committed to the article. An email address in exchange for immediate access to content they want is a small price to pay.
    • Bonus: You’re reducing friction for when they do become a paid subscriber. They’ve already set up their account. All they have to do is enter payment info.
    • Example: Small Boats Magazine saw their email subscribers jump up by an average of 20% per month, once they launched their free registration level.
    • Alternative: For publishers with lower-frequency, high-value content, a free registration level might give away a little too much content. Instead, we’ve seen them offer access to one or two highly desirable pieces of content (videos, etc.), in exchange for an email address. It works for them in much the same way.
  • Setting the meter
    • Once you’ve set up your free level, set the meter on your paywall to just one article. If they encounter the free subscription messaging often enough, it becomes almost a no-brainer to join.
    • There’s more flexibility in the number of articles provided to your free members. But here are some starting points to experiment with:
      • For niche publishers with longer-form, high-value content, published less frequently: start at 1-3 free articles a month, depending on how often you publish.
      • If you are a new niche publisher, offer 1-3 free articles, period. Ditch the monthly until you’ve established more a readership.
      • For news publishers, publishing high-volume articles daily: Start at 5-10 free articles a month. Start at the higher end and test for 30-60 days. Adjust backwards until you find your sweet spot.
  • Targeting
    • Once you’ve gathered their email address (and tagged them appropriately), you can start targeting them for future upgrades.
    • Start slow: registration is some work. Offer them a reward for that – a discount or a free month. Don’t pounce on them right out of the gate.
    • With tags, you can even target them with your automated newsletter. Send them different messaging at the end, prompting them to join. (Your paid subscriber messaging can be a thank you, an offer for a premium membership, a request for a donation.)
    • You can target your site messaging as well. Tools like the Conditional Display Notice will display different messages in the header bar, depending on the status of the reader.
    • You can also insert paid subscription promotions in your content with AdDropper. Create a quick promotion in the tool and set it to show up after every third paragraph or so, in every article. (And you can hide it from logged-in subscribers, too.)
  • Pro Tip: Install IP Blocker to stop incognito browsing. Once they can’t sneak around your paywall, it’s easy to funnel them into the free subscription level.

Want to learn more?

Check out Episode 17 of the Paywall Podcast. It’ll give you the full rundown of step one of the Subscription Accelerator™.

Get our free guidebook:

The Publishers' Quick Start Guide to Accelerating Digital Subscriptions

And stay tuned for the next episode of the Paywall Podcast, available on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Podcasts, and Pandora.

If you have specific questions on setting up a free registration level or on accelerating your subscriptions generally, don’t hesitate to ask.

Ready to grow your subscriptions?