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Benchmarking Digital Subscriptions: An improved framework based on subscriptions per 1,000 visits

Having started his career as Head of Subscriber Marketing of Financial Times Deutschland, Markus has since worked at Axel Springer's magazines, as CEO of a  marketing firm and with Axel Springer Vertriebsservice before founding his own business in 2013, pv digest, a paid for monthly information service on the reader revenue business in German.        

Let's talk about benchmarks…

If two have the same number of digital subscribers, it's far from clear that both titles can talk about comparable success in digital sales. 

For example, if Publisher A has 13,000 digital subscriptions and Publisher B does too, then Publisher A could still be more successful than Publisher B – that is, if it's positioned within a smaller market. Because, if we add in their print subscribers – 90,000 at Publisher A and 150,000 for Publisher B – it suggests that, relative to the potential market in question, Publisher A's 13,000 digital subscriptions represent a greater success than this same number of digital subscribers to Publisher B. 

You could argue that the number of print subscriptions doesn't have much to do with the amount of online subscribers. But I'd argue against that. After all, publishers have worked for decades (if not centuries!) to maximize their readership potential. The maximum digital subscription potential is in reasonable proportion to the readership of print newspapers, and thus to the quantity of subscribers to the print edition.

This ratio of digital subscriptions to print subscriptions is a figure that can be used to describe the success of regional daily newspapers in the digital subscription business.

The benchmark ‘subscriptions / 1,000 visits'

However, a more valuable metric is the ratio of digital subscriptions to digital reach. This key figure is better for a number of reasons: 

  • It allows us to benchmark all possible digital publishing subscription products, not just those that offer print newspapers
  • Unlike the number of subscribers, digital reach allows us to compare publishers according to a uniform standard thanks to tools such as Similarweb 

The ratio of digital subscriptions to digital reach is a key figure that describes how well a digital medium exploits its available reach. 

For pv digest, I measure this exploitation by dividing the number of digital subscriptions with the number of visits (according to Similarweb). For the 20 or so German-language daily newspapers that report their digital subscriptions according to audit standards  (IVW and ÖAK), I have calculated an average exploitation of 3.4 digital subscriptions per 1,000 monthly visits.

However, like with many benchmarks, there are individual cases that deviate from this average value, covering a wide range of up to 16 digital subscriptions per 1,000 visits to only 0.04. There are various reasons for this, including the maturity of a publisher's digital subscription offer (those who have only just launched a naturally lag behind more mature models) and the type of subscriptions offered (the “16 subscriptions per 1,000 visits” figure comes from an offer that was sold at a rock-bottom price that the publisher has since removed from their portfolio). 

We can also apply this benchmarking figure internationally, but with some sacrifices in accuracy.

Expanding this benchmark to 24 international publishers

The media considered here currently have an arithmetic mean of just under 15 digital subscriptions per 1,000 visits. At 7.4, the median average internationally is well above the average for German-language paid media.


This selection of international publishers doesn't follow any particular system. It is an arbitrary selection from very different markets. My selection is primarily intended to take into account large and well-known offerings, with the exception of the German daily newspaper Taz, which I have included because of the interesting opportunities for comparison in voluntary paid models.

I primarily took the digital subscription figures from FIPP's Global Digital Subscription Snapshot (Q2/2022 issue). In some cases, I have replaced these values with my own, more up-to-date information. As a result, the is more or less up-to-date. The quantities mentioned also do not, like the data on German-language newspapers, correspond to uniform measurement criteria. Nevertheless, my impression is that it is possible to learn from the comparison of these well-known paid content offerings.

Benchmarking paywall models

The paid content offerings presented here refer to four different paywall types:

  • Freemium model: certain content is only available to paying subscribers whilst the rest is available to anyone for free
  • Paywalls with a request to pay voluntarily: all content is available to read for free but visitors are asked for a donation if possible
  • Hard paywalls: more or less all content is reserved for paying subscribers
  • /metered paywalls: readers can access a quota of content before being asked to pay. However, some of these models require the user to register and log in even for the first free read

These four paywall models are strikingly different in terms of their success as measured by the ‘subscriptions/1,000 visits' metric. In part, this is not surprising. As content blocked by a hard paywall is very unattractive to non-subscribers, the reach of such websites is usually much lower and, as a consequence, the proportion of paying users is higher. 

Exceptions prove the rule: Slovakian paid-content success, Denník N, has a free stream of news content on its website, ensuring high access numbers, while at the same time all self-produced articles are behind the paywall.

However, the clear difference between freemium and metered models is worth noting. With both models, publishers try to maintain a balance between exclusive content on the one hand, providing subscribers with an engaging product experience, and free reads to allow for content discovery and subscriber acquisition on the other. Metered paywalls make better use of the existing reach than freemium models.

Benchmarking is just ‘one of those things'… 

The 24 media presented here are mostly very successful in their own way. It's not really possible to group them together for many reasons. They're in different markets, with alternative and business models. Some have employed a paywall model for only a few months or years, others for much longer than anywhere else (Wall Street Journal for instance).

But there are commonalities, too. They all want to attract as many digital subscribers as possible. And the method of achieving this is the same – reach. They can be more or less successful at this. The exploitation metric described here makes a comparison possible at this point – not only between these publishers, but also for each subscription manager to their own offering. And from this comparison, productive questions and perhaps even tentative answers can arise. This is all this indicator can and will do.

Find Markus on Linkedin and, for our German-speaking readers, check out his monthly information service on the reader revenue business, pv digest.  Readers of pv digest are directors and C-level execs at publishing houses, digital-only publications and service-providers in the publishing sector. They enjoy the depth of pv digest's reporting as well as the commentaries and analyses of current topics and developments.