This research is based on unique data collected from our proprietary audience of publisher, agency, brand and tech insiders. It’s available to Digiday+ members. More from the series →
This report is the third piece to come out of our Digiday Subscription Index, a research framework that analyzes and ranks a set of publications across digital threshold experience, member benefits and pricing and plans dimensions.
Publishers have had a difficult year adjusting to market-wide anxiety over the threat of a recession, but there seems to be some light at the end of the tunnel — at least for 2023.
At the beginning of the year, many publishers focused their strategies on subscriber retention to maintain steady revenue. As Q2 came to a close and financial numbers were released, their efforts paid off. Companies such as The New York Times and Gannett announced that their average revenue per user (ARPU) for subscribers actually increased in Q2. For Gannett, that also meant the company “achieved our highest ARPU level in two years,” according to company CEO Mike Reed during an August 3 earnings call.
While other revenue streams such as advertising decreased, subscriptions presented a point of light.
As the year goes on, publishers have an optimistic view of the future, with 80% of publisher professionals expecting overall revenue to increase in the next 12 months, according to a Digiday+ Research survey. With that positive mindset coupled with real signs like increases in ARPU, subscriptions will likely play a role as a key revenue stream for the remainder of the year.
Against that backdrop, the Digiday Subscription Index seeks to examine and measure publishers’ subscription strategies across several different digital touchpoints to identify common approaches and key tactics. This edition of the research series studies an editorially-selected group of the top professional B2B publications in the U.S.
The Digiday Subscription Index collects data from a list of publishers across a set of dimensions that describe their approaches to subscriptions. The index then uses three main dimensions to gauge a publisher’s offering and subscription strategy. Dimension scores are used for categorization purposes and do not reflect positive or negative performance, but instead indicate strategies. The dimensions include the following:
- Digital Threshold Experience examines the layers and sophistication of a publication’s subscription setup and access. Subdimensions include paywalls/barriers, non-member accessibility, onboarding and customer support.
- Member Benefits measures a publication’s benefits and determines the value offered by a publication after the reader subscribes. Subdimensions include member-exclusives, add-ons/gifts and other perks.
- Pricing and Plans gives a picture of a publication’s pricing structure and plan complexity. Subdimensions include pricing, plan complexity and payment options.
The index is grouped into cohorts of similar publishers. This report focuses specifically on 12 professional publishers:
Total lockdown paywall strategy dominates the professional cohort
Unlike the other publisher cohorts in Digiday+ Research’s previous reports in this series, publications within the professional cohort all have very similar strategies to one another, regardless of the focus of their industry coverage. In particular, professional publications have an incredibly different approach to digital thresholds than both the news and lifestyle cohorts.
All of the professional publications analyzed for this report have some kind of metered paywall, and 50% have total paywalls, meaning they do not offer any free articles or content. When compared to 58% of news publications and 70% of lifestyle publications that have metered paywalls and 33% and 0%, respectively, that have total paywalls, there is a clear difference in gating strategy, with the professional cohort being much more stringent than other groups.
These total paywalls — or what we’ll refer to as a lockdown strategy — make sense due to the nature of the content the professional cohort publishes. Unlike other publisher groups, the information contained in this cohort’s content is positioned as highly useful industry insights or best practices, implying that by subscribing to a publication, professionals or companies can gain an advantage over their competition. As a result, article content is hidden behind paywalls so that non-subscribers cannot access it for free — and even paying members cannot share it easily. This strategy incentivizes readers to subscribe in order to stay at the forefront of industry knowledge.
To further emphasize the strategy, the other half of the cohort that does not have total paywalls offers a low number of free articles to readers. On average, professional publications only allow 1.3 free articles per 30 days, while news publications allow 2.9 and lifestyle publications offer 2.7 free articles — putting the professional cohorts average at less than half of the number of articles compared to the other two cohorts.
While the lifestyle cohort includes some premium-positioned publications, such as Vogue, the entirety of the professional cohort is positioned as premium content and lends itself to a lower limit of free articles. Due to the strict paywalls and low number of free articles, many of the professional publications likely do not rely as heavily on display ad revenue that requires higher foot traffic. Instead, many feature an abundance of sponsored content covering specific topics relevant to the publications’ communities — likely at higher CPMs than consumer publications.
Politico Pro is a group outlier among professional publishers in its paywall strategy. Unlike the other publications that offer some form of preview or partial view of content to entice the would-be subscriber, Politico Pro utilizes a complete lockout from member-exclusive content. In fact, its offering requires potential subscribers to contact the publication for pricing and a custom consultation.
This requirement of one-on-one interaction with the publication, resulting in a tailored plan, means Politico Pro has built out its customer support features much more than its competitors — and even other publications in different cohorts. It has a heavily featured AI chatbot to help answer general questions and dedicated customer support lines for members. In other words, Politico Pro’s strategy focuses on a lower volume of subscribers with high-priced customized plans, while most other publications in the professional cohort aim for a higher volume of subscribers spread out across their different subscription tiers.
Pricing strategies differ between professional publications that cover general business vs. specific industries
The biggest variation among strategies within the professional group is in pricing and plans. On average, the professional publications charge $198.91 annually for their base plans, higher than the news cohort at an average $184.38 and the lifestyle cohort at an average $47.14. Prices jump significantly when publications offer higher-tier subscriptions, going as high as $1,655 for an annual subscription, with the average annual price being $600.29. Again, to note, Politico Pro was not measured in our analysis of pricing and plans due to its highly custom — and opaque — pricing structure. However, industry sources estimate that its pricing can range anywhere from $2,495 to $14,300.
Within the professional cohort, two publications diverge significantly from the pack when it comes to pricing: Forbes and Insider. The two have lower annual price points, at $49.99 and $99 respectively. When these publications are removed from the rest of the group, the cohort’s average annual price rises to $226.56. Alongside their professional content, these two publications in particular have more content geared toward general news, rather than strictly professional trade reporting and insights. In fact, because of this hybrid focus, Insider was also included in Digiday+ Research’s first report on the news cohort.
Within Insider’s portfolio of member-exclusive benefits like research products, Insider positions itself as an expert information resource among news publishers with relevance across industries, without focusing on any particular one. Forbes situates itself in a similar space. Both publications’ emphasis on financial research and news aims to reach a niche subscriber audience interested in in-depth news and insider information about trends and events that affect businesses across industries. Because of this, Forbes and Insider have lower price points to attract both financial and other types of business professionals as well as premium news readers looking for more business-related information.
Exclusive content drives value for higher professional tiers
Outside of Forbes and Insider, the other publications within the professional cohort have similar subscription tiering strategies to one another. In addition to a higher price point, the majority (70%) have a tiered subscription program, a tactic much less common among the news and lifestyle groups. For the professional group, the higher tiers give access to additional content, such as exclusive or more in-depth articles that are typically more topical to industry leaders, or multimedia offerings like member-exclusive podcasts.
Other cohorts’ higher tiers tend to focus primarily on features like viewing content ad-free. The only exceptions in our analysis are The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post in the news cohort, which, like their professional cohort counterparts, provide access to additional content at higher tiers.
During subscription sign-up, the professional group essentially requires readers to self-segment as either in-depth professionals looking for more sophisticated insights or tools, or as more casual professionals mainly interested in news and basic content. As mentioned before, the steep price difference between tiers — on average between $198.91 for base subscriptions and $600.29 for the premium level — acts as a natural separation between the two different reader groups. To further encourage self-segmentation and promote higher tier subscriptions, many of the publications in the professional cohort offer à la carte purchases of benefits offered only at the higher level, primarily research products.
Harvard Business Review is a standout in its liberal usage of à la carte purchase options, by either allowing the reader to buy a single case study or to subscribe to its premium tier. A single case study is currently $8.95 on the Harvard Business Review store, while the premium tier is advertised as $15 a month, a little under the price of two case studies — though yearly that amounts to $180. While the price of a single case study is a little over half the price of a monthly subscription, Harvard Business Review does not advertise the two prices together when offering à la carte case studies for purchase — as the two options do not appear side by side. The pricing appears as two distinct and separate strategies of either à la carte sales of individual products or recurring subscription revenue driven by the publication’s suite of products.
For professionals, access to additional exclusive content such as trend reports or indexes can be an incredible draw. By placing those features behind higher subscription tiers, a subset of the cohort’s target audience is likely to pay extra on top of an already high annual base rate for those pieces of content. Readers who choose to only access the base tier are likely individuals who primarily need to keep up with industry trends, while premium tier subscribers are individuals who need to stay ahead in their industries.
Professional publications leverage enterprise tiers to attract readers with pricing deals and group-wide accessibility
Publications in the professional cohort also commonly offer enterprise subscriptions, an important strategy that is distinctive to the group. Eighty-three percent of professional publications offered some kind of group plan that was advertised separately from its standard tiered subscriptions. Only 30% of the news group offered a group plan, and none of the analyzed lifestyle publishers did the same.
With enterprise subscriptions, companies who want to keep their employees up to date on their industries will often opt for a group plan to benefit from better pricing at this higher volume. Given the professional publications’ aim for scale, many in the cohort set a minimum party size. Most require either a minimum of five or 10 subscribers to qualify for the enterprise group rates. Only one of the indexed professional publications displays this group pricing readily and transparently. All other publications require the purchaser to reach out and ask for rates.
Aside from more favorable pricing, enterprise subscription offerings usually line up with the offerings of the publications’ premium tiers and don’t come with additional content. Rather, additional benefits, if any, come in the form of curation or customer service. Business of Fashion offers content curation for enterprise groups based on client companies’ goals and industries. Bloomberg offers the same content for enterprise subscriptions and individual subscriptions, but those who purchase group plans have access to a specialty customer service team dedicated to them.
There are two exceptions to the standard enterprise offering: FT Pro and Politico Pro. Both feature an enterprise account based on platforms separate from their standard digital publications. These pro sites use total lockdown paywalls and offer completely different, enterprise-member-exclusive content than their standard counterparts.
Member-exclusive content leans hard on research and data in the professional cohort
Among all the dimensions analyzed, professional publications have the most similar strategy to one another when it comes to their choice of member-exclusive benefits. While the news and lifestyle cohorts feature diverse add-ons like a physical gift with subscriptions or a browser extension, the professional cohort focuses heavily on research, events and exclusive multimedia and digital content, such as videos or apps.
Research-based benefits are most common across the professional publications, with 100% of the cohort featuring some kind of member-exclusive research product and 67% providing direct data access. To emphasize how unique this strategy is among all three cohorts, 17% of news publications include member-exclusive research, while only 10% of lifestyle publications do the same. Direct data access is offered even less frequently: Excluding Insider — which was considered within both the news and professional group reports — no other news publisher offers it. As a note, Digiday+ Research treated Bloomberg Terminal and Bloomberg Professional Services as a separate product and did not include them in its analysis of the basic Bloomberg subscription product.
Some strong providers of direct data access are the Financial Times (FT) and Ad Age. Both provide subscribers with specific data cuts that are already organized. The FT gives readers access to additional market data, such as bond rates and commodity values. Similarly, Ad Age allows access to marketing and agency data for its premium all-access subscribers.
Many of these research products are only accessible through higher tier subscriptions, as in the case of Ad Age’s data. Vogue Business offers access to different research products depending on the subscription tier. Its standard tier allows access to more basic tools like trend trackers, but access to other, advanced research products, like an annual fashion index and bi-monthly insights reports, are only available at the advanced level.
The standard price of a Vogue Business subscription is $230, and the advanced level sits at quite a jump above at $1,655. The main difference between the two tiers is access to advanced, tier-exclusive research products. Vogue Business uses its data-driven insights as the main value proposition to entice professional readers to advance to the higher tier — something the publication highlights clearly on its subscription page.
Besides using research as a way to promote higher-priced, more premium subscription packages, many of the publications in the professional cohort highlight research as the main reason to subscribe to any tier level at all. Often the subscription page features a list of member-exclusive benefits that highlights a research product that subscribers can access at specific tier levels.
Other member-exclusive content focuses on multimedia touchpoints
Aside from research, members-only events are also a big focus for the professional cohort. While in-person events have returned in full force since the release of Covid-19 vaccines, it seems that professional publishers and their subscribers are still finding value in both offline and online events in a post-pandemic world. Thirty-three percent of publications hold member-exclusive online events and the same 33% publications with member-exclusive online events were also the only ones with member-exclusive in-person events. However, all but one publication, Harvard Business Review, offered events in general.
In the group offering member-exclusive events, publications like Forbes and Business of Fashion host live virtual and in-person events. The publications fully incorporate events access into their subscriptions — though they also sell sponsorships to generate higher overall events revenue.
The remainder of the cohort offer events that are open to the public, but at an additional purchase price. For professional publications, this strategy can be a key component of their revenue mix. Of the publications with public events, only two offer discounted tickets to subscribers, a strategy seen more frequently within the lifestyle cohort. Interestingly, those two publications, Ad Age and AdWeek, both focus on the same industry. It’s likely that, for the ad industry, subscriber discounts for event passes are an appealing member benefit.
Lastly, exclusive multimedia content and digital tools are also common features among professional publishers. All publications within the cohort offer exclusive video content for members, and 92% offer an app for easier member access to content. Video content often includes previously recorded speaker sessions from events, again highlighting the importance of the publications’ events and their byproducts for subscriptions within the cohort.
Take Harvard Business Review, for example. While it offers non-subscribers shorter video content that typically gives quick summaries of more complex topics, its member-exclusive videos are much longer and feature in-depth discussions among experts about specific business cases or business problems and solutions — modeling the publication’s overall focus on the case study format. It also offers a video type called “Whiteboard Session,” in which an expert explains and brainstorms ideas about specific topics.
While apps are a common tool that publications use to create a branded environment where readers can browse content more smoothly, those in the professional group add additional value to their apps by curating or personalizing readily accessible content and information that is most pertinent to an individual user, or that is about current events and hot topics within industries.
Notably, FT’s and Politico Pro’s apps are specific to the publications’ subscribers. FT’s app offers subscribers eight handpicked stories every weekday, which are focused on current key financial news to get industry professionals up to speed quickly. Politico Pro’s app allows subscribers to access real-time policy updates, staff member changes and other topics of interest to subscribers.
The professional publications share similar strategies across the group and often focus on differentiating a tiered subscription experience: one level for casual professionals and another for professionals looking for more in-depth research and insights. Unlike the other cohorts, the professional group is not split into sub-cohorts via coverage or strategy. To review, here are more of the key points:
The professional cohort has more serious paywalls and more total article lockouts than other cohorts.
- The professional cohort has much more stringent paywall strategies than the other cohorts. One-hundred percent of the measured professional publications have some kind of metered paywall and 50% have total paywalls with no free articles or content.
- The cohort’s lockdown strategy makes the publications’ information more exclusive and articles are positioned as highly useful industry insights or best practices. The idea is that, by subscribing to one of these publications, professionals, teams or entire companies gain an advantage over their competition. As a result, the article content is hidden so that others cannot access it for free.
Tiered strategies focus on professional needs at different levels.
- Non-tiered publishers Forbes and Insider have lower price points to attract professionals as well as premium news readers looking for more financial and general business-related information.
- Tiered publishers focus on providing access to additional exclusive content, such as trend reports or indexes. By placing access to certain products at higher tiers, a subset of the cohort’s target audience will likely pay extra to access those tiers. Subscribers who choose to only access the base tier are likely individuals who only need to keep up with industry trends, while premium-tier subscribers are individuals who need to stay ahead of industry trends.
Data-driven member-exclusive content drives value for all tiers.
- Research-based benefits are the most common across professional publications, with 100% of the cohort featuring some kind of member-exclusive research product and 67% providing direct data access. Often the subscription page features a list of member-exclusive benefits that highlights a research product that readers can access at specific tier levels.
- Members-only events are also a big focus for the professional cohort. Thirty-three percent of publications hold member-exclusive online events, and those same publications were also the only ones that held member-exclusive in-person events. Unlike the news and lifestyle cohorts that rely heavily on ad revenue, most professional publications have lower rates of online traffic due to their focus on niche audiences and an emphasis on locked content, so it’s no surprise that events can play an important role for the professional cohort — within or outside of subscription offerings.
- Exclusive multimedia content and digital tools are also common features of the professional publications’ subscriptions. One-hundred percent of the cohort offer exclusive video content for members, and 92% offer an app for easier member access to content. Video content often includes previously recorded speaker sessions from events, again highlighting the importance of events and their byproducts for this cohort.