Audience Engagement Digital Publishing
5 mins read

Subscribers are 34.5% more engaged compared to occasional readers, study shows

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Financing media is still not easy, which is why many newsrooms and publishers decided to cut staff at the beginning of the year. But the reader revenue model (or the subscriptions model) is still perceived as the latest savior of journalism.

Trying to monetize on information in the age of hyperconnectivity might seem like a far-fetched idea, but readers are undeniably showing a will to pay for quality content. Media organizations with strong relationships with their audiences started experimenting with charging for their content.

The results are vastly positive, which is encouraging. More and more publishers report an increase in the number of subscribers; reader revenue is gradually becoming one of their most important sources of revenue.

Industry experts say that subscribers read 20 times more articles and consume 20 times more advertisements which are five times more expensive (since they are located in the premium content section). In addition, subscribers are 160 times more “valuable” to publishers compared to anonymous users.

These promising figures are the reason why we at Content Insights set ourselves on a mission to find out what are the differences and similarities between readers who read stories for free and subscribers who are being charged for content.

We wanted to find out more about the behavior of two groups of readers (free and paid) and the levels of readers’ engagement with the stories and media brands they follow.

Our key findings:

  • Subscribers are 34.5% more engaged on average, compared to people who only read free stories
  • Subscribers are spending more time reading stories and they read bigger chunks of content compared to people who are not subscribers
  • Subscribers are better promoters of stories and media brands; they are more eager to share what they read with others

Our data analysis

Content Insights is our innovative content analytics solution that, unlike the majority of tools on the market, takes in mind complex, behavior metrics – not single, browser metrics. We moved away from single metrics such as pageviews, average time on page, and returning visitors. These metrics measure browser activity, not human behavior.

Instead of Pageviews (which might as well be called Page-Loads since they cannot reliably say anything about the real number of readers or their level of engagement) – we at Content Insights measure actual Article Reads.

Instead of Time on Page – we measure Attention Time.

Content Insights also measures Read Depth in order to determine how far a person has got into reading the article.

These are some of the complex metrics which are taken in mind and calculated by the tool’s unique algorithm called CPI (Content Performance Indicator). CPI takes into consideration dozens of different content performance metrics and examines their relations. It also weighs them differently according to three behavioral models: exposureengagement, and loyalty

In the search for answers how subscribers and people who consume news for free behave, we’ve analyzed the data obtained from nine media organizations within our network. All of them are located in Western Europe. Eight of these organizations are regional news websites in their countries, and one outlet serves a national audience. 

We’ve looked into insights for 58.500 articles, both free ones and the ones put behind a paywall. Those articles were published within three months, from mid-October 2018 to mid-January 2019.

Subscribers are way more engaged

Subscriptions are among the hottest topics in the industry right now, and not without good reason. Charging for content has proven to have great potential as the sustainable business model, which is why building relationships and nurturing loyal readers is becoming a priority for publishers.

Media specialists mostly talk about the numbers of subscribers or what drives occasional readers to become subscribers. However, they do so without exploring their behavior and level of engagement. 

Our unique way of measuring reader engagement shows that subscribers are 34.5% more engaged on average, compared to people who consume content free of charge.

We’ve analyzed data obtained from the news outlets within our network. We’ve ensured a relevant sample by focusing on those sections that offer both free and paid content.

Our analysis showed that Engagement Content Performance Indicator (CPI) is on average 34.5% higher for paid articles, compared to free ones. 

What is Engagement CPI

CPI is a complex algorithm used to calculate content performance. It relies on behavioral metrics instead on simple ones that measure browser activity, which empowers it to properly evaluate content performance. CPI is presented as a single number between 1 and 1.000.

Engagement CPI helps you to understand which content resonates well with your audience and which generates the most interest from your readers. It measures how efficient articles are at influencing readers to stay engaged with the content, both within the article, but also more broadly across the domain.

Subscribers read more

Attention Time (or the actual time spent on articles) is one of the metrics taken into consideration when it comes to calculating engagement. It also serves as a proof of the value of a certain page, topic or section, and is something advertisers are interested to know more about before investing in online ad space.

Who spends more time reading content, subscribers and non-subscribers
Average Attention time in seconds

We’ve compared Attention Time values for people reading premium content and people who consume free content.

Our data showed that subscribers spend on average 21.5% more time reading content, compared to people who are non-subscribers.

But who reads more words actually? Within Content Insights, we can also compare the number of words read for both reader groups.

Subscribers read an average of 221 words per article, while people who only read free content read 176 words on average per article, which means subscribers read 21% more words out of a single article, compared to non-subscribers.

Number of words read by subscribers and non-subscribers
Average number of words read per analyzed article

Our research also shows that subscribers are actually being served longer stories. On average, premium content is 38% longer than the free one.

Sharing is caring

Subscribers are champions when it comes to Social Actions.

Social Actions Percentage we calculate shows us that subscribers are more than a few times more likely to make a Social Action on the story they just read. This percentage reads into a percentage of people who read a certain article and decided to like it, share it or comment on it on a certain social network.

Average Social actions percentage

According to our data, Average Social Actions Percentage for the stories that were not behind a paywall was as little as 1.91%, while paid content had Social Actions Percentage almost three times higher, sitting at 5.69%. 


Industry experts say that subscription conversions only account for between 1.5 and 4% of the total readership. Not much at first glance, but if we remember that subscriber is “worth” 160 times more to publishers than a casual reader – even these seemingly small figures count. 

Subscribers are invaluable to publishers:

  • They are 34.5% more engaged compared to occasional readers
  • They spend 21.5% more time on paid content and read 21% more words
  • Subscribers are great brand supporters and they promote media via social network by interacting or ‘going crazy on the share button’

In order to push their business forward and save their integrity, publishers will have to put more effort into building relationships with their readers. Investing time in creating in-depth, high-quality stories requires resources, but it seems to be worth it since readers respect the work and are willing to pay for it.

With savvily crafted subscription plans and valuable content, publishers can turn their readers into brand advocates who will speak on their behalf by promoting premium content across social media or through the power of recommendation. Publishers can also make the most of ads as their secondary revenue source: premium sections offer more expensive ad space since reader engagement is higher here.

by Milos Stanic

Republished with kind permission of Content Insights, the next generation content analytics solution that translates complex editorial data into actionable insights.