Subscriptions, memberships, paywalls, conversions.

Conversations linked to a reader revenue / audience-centred business strategy have been going on for years. This is no temporary hype, no zeitgeist-y philosophy or idea.

This is recognisably the most logical, realistic and studied approach to securing the future of newsrooms, so it’s no surprise that once again it’s been a central theme in this season’s conference season.

The trick of course is how to turn casual users into paying subscribers. Conversion is therefore something which is quite rightly occupying the minds of conference rooms and board rooms. And with good reason. Done right, you’re setting yourself up for a long-term relationship with your subscribers. Get it wrong and those readers will churn faster than you can say ‘have you put the milk in the fridge?’

So what are the secrets to successful (and increasing numbers of) conversions?

Polaris Media outlined the customer journey to subscription very neatly in five parts in their recent WAN-IFRA presentation as follows:

  • Awareness
  • Consideration
  • Decision
  • Service
  • Advocacy

Through each of these stages, three things are worth paying attention to. And anyone can focus on three, right?

How to turn casual users into paying subscribers

1. Engagement is essential

At the centre of all of these things is the perennial issue of engagement. What this looks like through these five phases is worth pausing over, because when harnessed and understood it can make a massive difference.

Your potential subscribers must be sufficiently aware of what you do and how you do it to have built a sustained, habitual relationship with your news brand. Indeed, within the Insights part of our tool, that’s how we monitor and track loyalty - and that’s something you can read more about here.


  • Do you know who your loyal readers are? What do they read? How do they read it? Are you responding to those patterns of behaviour in the way you commission content?
  • User needs can help build the quality of engagement with your audience by guiding you through the kinds of articles people are reading - and which ones they aren’t. This will help ensure that you’re not shouting into the abyss but rather feeding their curiosity and interests. Get started with that here.

2. Measure everything

Yes. Everything.

Or at least, everything that’s relevant to you and what your newsroom needs to do to achieve its business goals. It’s perfectly possible to set up your analytics system to work for your newsroom - and if you do you’ll increase the chances of integrating it successfully into your team’s workflow.

Within the smartocto tool, it’s possible to track all the impact metrics you can imagine:

  • Paid subscription
  • Registration / Sign up
  • Login
  • Paywall events
  • Newsletter subscription
  • Write a comment
  • Video play on page
  • Search conducted
  • Click a button
  • Content share
  • Outbound click
  • Download whitepaper
  • App install
  • Churn

But it also adds in some dimensions that fill in the gaps and give a much more nuanced and helpful picture of how, when and why readers are converting - and critically, when they’re likely to churn as well.

Conversion metrics

So, what do you need to keep an eye on when it comes to conversions? Well, those five points outlined at the beginning are a useful framework - how do they apply to your business?

  • Awareness - who’s reading what, and how?
  • Consideration - what kind of paywall are you operating? Do you know which articles trigger a click? (There’s more on that here)
  • Decision - we’ll get to that in a few minutes…
  • Service - punching in credit card numbers is just the beginning - how will you keep connected? Newsletters and email notifications are valuable - what do people want or need in those? When do they need them? Are people interacting differently on mobile or desktop? Are you responding to those findings?
  • Advocacy - How are people spreading the word and giving recommendations for what you do? What social channels are successful? Is content shareable?

And, once you’ve identified what you’re measuring, it’s really helpful to harness the power of smart notifications to help you keep on top of actions needed to be taken. Ours look something like this, for example:

conversions notifications

That extra little nudge can make all the difference - and keep you on the right track, in line with your business goals.

3. A/B testing is your friend

If you’re offering subscription or membership options, what do they look like to your readers? How do you know what works best? There’s really only one way to find out, and that’s by A/B testing.

The good folk over at Polaris Media shared the evolution of their paywall strategy at the recent WAN-IFRA event in Oslo. The takeaway? Iteration and testing - and A/B testing in particular - yields dramatic results.

From their self-described ‘ancient paywall’ back in 2019, they’ve evolved to a much more sophisticated conversion screen - firstly by A/B testing iconography (using faces seemed to work better and increased click through by 197%), but then by personalising it further by the use of different ‘faces’ of the brand. Again this increased the click through rate by 12.2%. These increases matter enormously as the competition for reader dollars gets fiercer.

The point is, progress is iterative. There’s always room for improvement, and being in the mindframe to search out better practice can be transformative. Technology is evolving. Readers are increasingly time-poor and ever more discerning. You’ll have to continue to work to keep them happy. Don’t rest on your laurels.

going from a 'trust me' to 'show me' approach to journalism

And finally, conversion is one thing, but retention is another

What’s the key to reducing churn? It’s simple - but not necessarily easy. The answer is applying those three things continuously and diligently to all content - especially if it’s behind a paywall.

People often talk about searching for the ‘Spotify for news model’, but while it’s assumed that what they mean is an umbrella service through which people can access content from multiple sources, in fact the lesson is much simpler.

Spotify has made itself an essential service for music lovers. When people use something daily and don’t give the financial outlay a second thought, you’re onto a winner. If it works, if it’s seamless. If it answers the needs you have of it, that’s great.

For newsrooms, this means understanding who your audience are and what they need - or as our CMO recently wrote, going from a ‘trust me’ to ‘show me’ approach to journalism. From here it’s easy to incorporate this monitoring and analysis into the workflow, so you can know instantly if something isn’t working - or if something is working really well.

Luckily this is hardly an onerous task. Reports and smart notifications are there for the taking and - dare we say - are actually fun to use. So, use them!