Insights, tools and research to advance journalism

News subscriber archetypes

When it comes to paying for news and information, our research found that subscribers tend to fit one of three archetypes, each with different habits, attitudes and motivations toward subscriptions.

Note that these archetypes are based on behavior, attitudes and beliefs, not demographics. That means an individual person’s category will not change over time just because they get older. Though people may change if experiences or culture reshape their attitudes. Some news subscribers might fall somewhere between two archetypes, but an Elusive Engager is unlikely to “grow into” or convert to a Thrifty Transactor or a Civically Committed.

The insights identified below provide publishers with greater detail into the mindsets of these three archetypes.

The Civically Committed

At a glance

Willingness to pay: High

  • Views their support of journalism as a moral duty
  • Subscription decisions are more emotional than practical
  • Subscribes to a higher-than-average number of publications
  • Prioritizes organizations whose missions and values align with their own
  • High loyalty; likely to pay for subscriptions even if they aren’t using them
  • Low price sensitivity

How to spot the Civically Committed

  • Likely a news organization member, or donor
  • Subscribes and donates to multiple news sources
  • Likely donates to other causes and/or volunteers

“[Subscribing to news and donating to news organizations] makes me feel like at least I’m doing something, you know? The world would be a better place, the country would be a better place if people were well informed.”
—Connie, 60, Fairfax, Calif.

The Civically Committed have the highest degree of loyalty and the lowest price sensitivity, making them extremely valuable for news publishers. If they already subscribe to a publication, our research suggests they might be willing to pay more, particularly if they depend on or feel strongly about the news organization and its mission. Those who are not current subscribers would be high-value, sustainable audiences to engage.

The subscribers in this group view their support of journalistic organizations as a moral duty. Their decisions are more emotional than practical or product-based: Those who fall into this group tend to feel a meaningful connection to the news organizations they support.

The Civically Committed are well-read, socially aware and involved. They likely added new subscriptions and made conscious decisions to support specific organizations after the 2016 election. They value deep investigative and watchdog reporting.

“I would feel more uniformed and lost without [my news subscriptions],” says Emiliana, 46, an avid reader in suburban Detroit who subscribes and donates to almost a dozen news organizations. “Cost is really not a factor. We don’t have kids. We have a small house, and we make a decent amount of money, so I feel like we have the money to support things like that.”

The Civically Committed are well-read, socially aware and involved.

“I feel like I’m becoming a better person and making the world a better place,” she says of the news she consumes.

The Civically Committed subscribe to a higher-than-average number of publications and often will continue to pay for subscriptions out of principle, even if they aren’t using them.

Connie, a 60-year-old subscriber from Fairfax, Calif., gets three print local/regional papers, the New York Times (digitally), the Washington Post (digitally) and the New Yorker (print and digital). She also contributes financially to her local NPR station as well as the Center for Investigative Reporting, a national investigative reporting non-profit. Though Connie doesn’t always read the papers to which she subscribes, she says, “It’s important for us to have local news.”

The Civically Committed aren’t made up only of older subscribers, nor are they always high-income. The millennials among this archetype, in particular, are a segment publishers should prioritize.

Six years ago, at a time when she was recently out of college and newly working for a childhood education nonprofit, Megan, 28, of Seattle, became a sustaining member of her local NPR station, committing to have $100 deducted from her bank account each month.

She had been listening to the station during her commute for about nine months, she estimates. “It really became part of my daily routine. They were saying something about how, if this is something you rely upon, then you should support it. It was like, ‘Yeah, makes sense to me.’ So I called in. I had to wait in the parking lot while I was reading her my credit card number.”

For Megan, it wasn’t about the perks or gifts she received or even the “member” label.

“I just think it’s necessary,” she says. “I trust the NPR station. That’s something that just seems natural to pay for.”

As for how she arrived at her annual $1,200 contribution, Megan says she just went with one of the suggested amounts: “It’s probably worth more.”

I trust the NPR station. That’s something that just seems natural to pay for.

That’s not to say that those in this group are throwing money at every news organization and charitable cause that asks for it. Aside from feeling a connection, The Civically Committed also prioritize support for organizations whose values or initiatives match their own.

Connie, for example, felt compelled to send another check to CIR (the Center for Investigative Reporting), to which she had already donated, after she attended an in-person information session where CIR staffers talked in depth about the organization and its work. (There was no direct ask for financial support during the event, but Connie said she was cognizant that she likely was invited because she was a donor.)

“Having people in the organization show us in some detail what they do, how they choose stories to report on and ways in which they try to engage and educate a range of people and get information to a broader audience, was a good way to inspire us to donate again,” she said. “I could see that overall they are concerned with the same issues I am. So I thought, ‘OK, they’re worth supporting some more.’”

Events, indeed, should be considered part of a deepening of relationship particularly with the Civically Committed, not just a way to generate revenue directly through sponsorship or ticket sales.

Strategies and opportunities

Tout your mission, values and community role. The Civically Committed decide to support news organizations whose mission and values align with their own. They need to know your mission, see how important it is to you, and see how you live up to it. Just putting out good news content is not enough.

Partner with volunteer and civic-minded organizations and brands. These other mission-driven groups likely have attracted a lot of Civically Committed already, and by affiliating with those groups (like your local United Way, Red Cross, food banks, shelters, and many others) you can show that your news organization shares the same values. Sponsoring or organizing local festivals, fundraisers, or sports teams can also be great ways to show that you share the same commitment to improving the community.

Create opportunities for real relationships and interaction. The Civically Committed want to feel a sense of belonging and membership with the news organizations they support. It’s not just about the content. They want to meet you, engage with you, and with each other.

Reward them with appreciation and inclusion. The Civically Committed are investing in you — both financially and emotionally. They see their subscription as giving to a friend, so you should respond with a heartfelt thank you note. If you just send a receipt, or nothing at all, you are missing the emotional connection they are trying to make with you.

Allow people to pay more — “donate” to the cause. The Civically Committed want to support you, not just pay for access to content. Some of them may have enough wealth or motivation to give you more than just the cost of a normal subscription. If your normal subscription costs $10 a month, consider adding a “sustaining” level of contribution that is $100 a month and is defined as a different, more philanthropic relationship. A few people may take you up on it, and even those who don’t will see that as a sign this is a mission-driven organization worth paying something for.

Thrifty Transactors

At a glance

Willingness to pay: Moderate

  • Driven by combination of utility (news I can use) and relevance (reflects my sensibilities and interests)
  • Price sensitive; needs to feel their purchases are high value
  • Loyal to a small, highly curated number of publications
  • Has very specific reasons, uses and sometimes rituals for each of their subscriptions

How to spot Thrifty Transactors

  • Subscribes to at least one specialty publication or magazine related to specific hobbies or interests in which they are particularly invested and engaged (think fitness enthusiast, home cook, golfer)
  • Coupon clippers fall into this group
  • Might rely on a newspaper for its coverage of one topic (look for digital users with regular, high engagement in one area)

“I have a very small subscription list because I’ve realized through the years the things that I really use and the things that I really want.”

—Anne, 37, Chicago

As their name indicates, the Thrifty Transactors are practically minded. They have a highly curated number of publications to which they subscribe and are loyal. To win the business of this group, news and information sources need to reflect the sensibilities, interests and values of these readers and add direct value to their lives.

The Harvard Business Review meets all these requirements for Michael, a 27-year-old data analytics professional in Chicago who has subscribed to the magazine for three years. “It relates to my life. I like the people who write for it. It gives me life value.”

“One [article] was eight questions you should ask when you become a manager, he says. “ So, when new people come on, I use those eight questions. That’s already worth $30.”

This group’s value of relevance and utility also makes them more likely to subscribe to specialty publications and magazines that speak to their specific interests and sensibilities—in addition to Harvard Business Review, Cooking Light, Harper’s Bazaar, The Economist, Wall Street Journal, Midwest Outdoor and Field and Stream were among other titles mentioned by interviewees.

Thrifty Transactors are practically minded. They have a highly curated number of publications to which they subscribe and are loyal.

Anne, a 37-year-old cooking aficionado and new mom, has subscribed to Cooking Light magazine since she was in her 20s. She still remembers the first Cooking Light recipe she ever made: “It was for white chicken chili. I was a senior in college and I had my first apartment and realized I didn’t want to eat junk food,” she says. “I didn’t want to eat processed food, so I made this and it changed my life.”

Fast forward more than 15 years: Though she’s a much more experienced cook now, the Chicago resident still relishes her Cooking Light, now one of just two food magazines to which she subscribes and for which she has a very specific ritual. “I’ll usually go through the whole thing in one sitting. Usually that first or second night [after it comes in the mail]. Then, they usually hang around for awhile. I’ll keep going back to them [to cook out of].”

If they aren’t already engaging with your product, this group might consider subscribing if a news outlet got better at covering a topic they deeply care about. Local coverage done well can also count as a highly relevant “specialty” with this archetype.

Dennis, a 32-year-old home contractor, lives in Reedsville, a small rural town between Manitowoc and Green Bay, Wis. Dennis subscribes to the daily e-edition of the Manitowoc paper. His family ties in Manitowoc make that paper feel more local and relevant to him than the paper in Green Bay: “A lot of my family, my nephews, their schools are in Manitowoc.”

“I go to the Herald Times because it literally has almost everything that goes on here,” he says. “My first priority [when it comes to news] is what’s here, because that’s where we are. National is second or third; [national news outlets] don’t really focus on anything around Wisconsin or the Midwest.”

For readers like Dennis who prioritize local news, however, it doesn’t go unnoticed when both the Manitowoc and Green Bay papers, owned by the same corporate parent, run the same story. Or when longtime journalists who are known in the community are replaced by unfamiliar bylines.

“Ever since they got bought out, you don’t know who some of these people are, the names, when you read it,” he says. It makes him question somewhat the reliability of the paper and how well the reporters know the community, though that has not yet affected his subscription.

Though [Thrify Transactors are] willing to pay, they can be price-sensitive, and it’s very important that they feel they’re getting a good value.

Thrifty Transactors are thoughtful about their purchases. Though this group is willing to pay, they can be price-sensitive, and it’s very important that they feel they’re getting a good value.

In addition to his local newspaper, Dennis also subscribes to Field and Stream and Midwest Outdoors, two monthly magazines for which he pays a higher yearly subscription than his local paper. But it’s worth the cost. “I can get information that’s good for me,” he says. “Like this one here will tell me what lure to use, maybe a good way to deer hunt, a good way to rabbit hunt. We get a lot of meat from hunting and fishing. So it’s a hobby for me, but it’s also providing.”

As much as she loves her Cooking Light subscription, Anne admits that it gave her pause recently, when the magazine tried to renew her for $35 a year, almost triple the promotional rate she had been paying in past years.

“In the great grand scheme of things, it’s not that expensive. I like it enough that I would stay with them, but [the magazine is] also chock full of fliers saying it’s $12 for new people. I might try to see if we can negotiate a better price.”

Strategies and opportunities

Provide excellence in key areas, not adequacy in all. The Thrifty Transactors are deciding whether your content stands out as high-value and unique. They need to see you as an indispensable source for certain things that really matter to them and help them live their lives. This requires a publisher’s investment and dedication to great content and engagement on those subjects.

Consider offering limited subscriptions to verticals. Building on the last point, some Thrifty Transactors may want to pay a smaller amount for just the kind of content they need. Only paying for what they use is part of their value calculation. If you can’t break out separate vertical subscriptions, at least consider indicating all the different “verticals” or specialty areas that customers get included with a normal subscription. Don’t assume people just know about all the stuff you cover.

Obtain lists of relevant magazine subscribers in your area. Once you have some areas of excellent coverage that are driving Thrifty Transactors to subscribe, see if there are any magazines or niche publications that also target those topics. You can strike a marketing partnership to promote your publication to their subscribers in your area.

Elusive Engagers

At a glance

Willingness to pay: Low

  • Driven by utility above all else
  • Views news and information as a “nice to have” or commodity
  • Wary of subscriptions; more comfortable with no-strings-attached transactions
  • Lower loyalty; those who are loyal are still reluctant to pay

How to spot Elusive Engagers

  • Might take advantage of free trials and promotions but quickly drop
  • More likely to prefer digital
  • More likely to arrive through search or social

“There’s almost a feeling that the news will always be there, and I’ll always be able to search or find enough information if I need it.”

—Johnny, 37, Fremont, Calif.

Many Elusive Engagers view news and information as a “nice to have” or a commodity that’s easily obtainable for free. They prioritize utility above other factors and care less about unnecessary extras and perks that might come with a particular paid service, such as access to premium features or entree into an exclusive community.

“There’s so much free information out there. I just have a hard time paying,” says Jake, a 35-year-old farmer from Monticello, IL. “If I search hard enough, I can find out what’s going on. It would just take more effort. I would probably miss out on some of it, but I’m fine with that.”

Importantly for publishers, loyalty to specific outlets and frequency of use among this group does not necessarily translate into a willingness to pay. Even those who say they value high-quality news and information have trouble overcoming the inertia of an abundant free information system.

Johnny, a 37-year-old stay-at-home dad from Fremont, Calif., describes himself as a “digital news junkie” — CNN and Gizmodo are two of his go-to online news destinations.

Loyalty to specific outlets and frequency of use among [Elusive Engagers] does not necessarily translate into a willingness to pay.

He also has been an “avid” listener of NPR since he was in college. He describes it as “an extremely valuable service” which he “loves” and listens to daily.

“I especially value NPR now when I think it’s important to have some neutral and unbiased reporting,” he says.

Yet, Johnny has never paid for any of the news sites he frequents nor has he made a financial contribution to his member station in 15 years of listening to public radio.

“I feel guilty that I haven’t [contributed to public radio],” he says. Johnny says he and his wife, who is a doctor, have discussed contributing, but they just haven’t gotten around to it. “It’s not a financial problem. If there isn’t something to make you realize that you have to seize upon it, then it’s just like, “OK, I’ll just wait until the next fundraiser. It’s not going away.”

When Elusive Engagers do pay for services, this group wants control over their purchases and are more comfortable with transactional, no-strings-attached relationships with service providers. They are wary of subscriptions or longer term commitments, preferring instead to make up-front, one-time payments.

As an example, Vivek, a 25-year-old engineer from Mountain View, Calif., will pay more to purchase a video game outright versus engaging in a video game subscription.

“I just prefer buying it up front and then just playing it and being done with it,” he says. “I’ve always shied away from subscribing to things, because I feel like it’s a big sink and you don’t realize it. And suddenly it all adds up.”

Johnny echoes the worry of feeling “on the hook” with subscriptions and donations. So it’s easier not to pay. “It’s almost a fear that once you give them your credit card that they’ll make it hard or stopping is going to be an issue. [With NPR, for instance], you imagine yourself talking to a real person, and then it feels harder to say you don’t want to renew,” he says. “We’ll just be locked into always contributing, so it really doesn’t feel like a small fee.”

Strategies and opportunities

Offer one-time-payment options with no commitment. The Elusive Engagers may spend a lot of time with you, but they avoid committing to recurring payments. If they can pay you for a week or a month, or for an article, they may be willing to contribute on that limited basis.

Make it easy to cancel, and emphasize that up front. It’s not that Elusive Engagers don’t want to pay at all, it’s just that they don’t want to be locked in. Emphasize that you can stop paying at any time, and you may win some of them over.

Monetize their loyalty in other ways. Elusive Engagers are not likely to subscribe, but they may still be a loyal and active audience you can get value from in other ways. You can serve them more ads and insist they turn off ad-blockers (because they do really want your content). You can register them so you can market other products and offers besides your news subscription (such as books, souvenirs, e-commerce, third-party paid promotions, etc.) to them on a one-time-payment basis. And you can get them to come to events that you monetize through tickets or sponsorships.

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