Digiday+ Research Lifestyle Subscription Index: Sports Illustrated, Vogue, NatGeo separate casual readers from enthusiasts

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 second 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.

Read the first installment on the subscription strategies of news publishers here.

Read the third installment on the subscription strategies of professional publications here.

01
Introduction

With the recent economic downturn, publishers have seen decreases in revenue from across business lines — and inordinately in ad sales. As publishers readjust their plans for the upcoming year, keeping subscription sales as steady as possible is a top priority. But according to Justin Eisenband, managing director of the Telecom, Media & Technology industry group at FTI Consulting, the average churn rate for publishers increased from 3% to 4% in 2021 and from 4% to 5% in 2022. 

For publishers rooted in print, specifically lifestyle publishers, this makes their online subscription offerings more vital as readers continue to move away from their glossy physical magazines in search of more content and more benefits. While turning to digital subscriptions to increase revenue is not a new tactic for print publishers, the challenge of constructing enticing digital offerings for readers amid a field of ever-increasing content options and competitors significantly ups the urgency.

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 lifestyle publications in the U.S. 

02
Methodology

The Digiday Subscription Index collects data from a list of publishers across a set of dimensions that describe how they approach their subscription businesses. The index then uses three main dimensions, which are broken into subdimensions, 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 eight lifestyle publishers:

03
From outdoors people to sports bettors, active lifestyle publishers cater their subscriptions to enthusiasts

The publishers that focus on active lifestyle content — in this case National Geographic, Outside and Sports Illustrated — allow free access to articles, instead focusing on member-exclusives to make their subscription products more enticing. 

Unlike other publications, active lifestyle publishers did not use the common strategy of heavily discounting their initial subscription fees and then renewing subscribers at the full-price subscription, a strategy that’s typically coupled with gated articles. Sports Illustrated and Outside both have $59.99 yearly subscription rates, with National Geographic coming in with the lowest price in the cohort at $19 annually. But none of them offers steep discounts to new subscribers. Sports Illustrated offered only 2% off the base annual subscription rate and National Geographic offered 0%. Outside offered 25% off, but that is still significantly lower than the lifestyle cohort average discount of 33%. 

Without a low-priced “trial” or introductory offers, consumers naturally segment themselves into enthusiasts or general hobbyists based on whether they are willing to pay the premium to subscribe to these publications, or continue to only engage with the publisher at the free level. While general readers may not be enticed to subscribe due to minimal first-promotion discounts, enthusiasts are more likely to pay the full price for a subscription. 

These more intense subscribers have access to curated content personalized to their interests — sometimes through a tailored feed algorithmically arranged based on their article consumption. But more importantly, subscribers receive a set of premium member-exclusive benefits. Somewhat similar to the professional news group that uses research-focused, member-exclusive benefits to entice often professional subscribers, the active lifestyle publications provide benefits that directly pertain to those who want to take their hobbies more seriously. 

In line with Sports Illustrated’s newer focus on — and enablement of — fantasy sports and sports betting through SI Sportsbook, its subscription is tailored to those making betting or roster decisions with the help of deep player and franchise knowledge. Key to that offering is a database of player statistics that provides more context for readers to better understand games and season lineups. This allows subscribers to get a sharper sense of what happens between plays, encouraging them to be more confident and informed in pursuits like fantasy drafting and even live sports speculation. 

National Geographic similarly offers a database, consisting of historical photo and article archives. Combined with other member-exclusive digital content like podcasts, videos and app features, a wealth of field knowledge spanning a century is at subscribers’ disposal, encouraging them to be curious about the world around them and, perhaps more abstractly, its exploration. 

For enthusiasts, National Geographic’s trove of historical articles and past magazine covers gives glimpses of history going back to 1888 — an era in which the romance of exploration was in full bloom. While the publication pushes for exploration, not all readers have access to travel or these types of experiences. The volume of archival content made available to subscribers, in some way, supplements the virtual expedition, as does NatGeo branded streaming content — accessible through Disney+ and prominently featured on the National Geographic homepage — allowing readers to explore from home. 

Outside’s strategy differs a bit from the other two active lifestyle publications. Within the group, Outside has the most member-exclusive offerings. The publication provides the ability to enroll in free member-exclusive training programs, which lean heavily on digital media, like instructional videos for specific outdoor activities like rock climbing, biking and backpacking. In the same vein, the publication also hosts activity and sports professionals, such as Olympians, to speak at online events to further create enthusiasm for an outdoors pursuit. Its online events provide access to outdoor activities professionals to inspire subscribers to continue pursuing their interests off the page and in their own lives. In conjunction with its educational benefits, the publication offers affiliate links and discounts to gear that best suits different activities — perhaps a hint at the spending power of Outside’s ideal subscriber cohort.

Active lifestyle publications provide benefits that not only give readers more information through member-exclusive content but also encourage readers to engage with the brands beyond their websites and newsletters. 

04
Vogue and Cosmopolitan leverage two tiers very differently

Vogue and Cosmopolitan are both fashion-focused publications that provide behind-the-scenes coverage of industry events. Between the two, both scored high on the digital threshold experience due to their strong paywalls and low number of free articles — Cosmo offers three and Vogue offers one, with the standard 30-day reset time to encourage some level of repeat monthly visits to their sites pre-subscription.  

Subscribing to Cosmo and Vogue brings people behind the digital velvet ropes with exclusive content and member perks. Along with gated articles, the publications also gate additional content, such as workout classes on the Cosmopolitan app and Vogue’s member-exclusive site, Vogue Runway, which houses its database of archival runway collections. Cosmopolitan also offers its members special discounts to products and early access to sponsored events, such as brand collaboration pop-up shops.

To further entice customers, both publications offer two tiers for subscription, with higher tiers featuring additional member benefits and lower tiers featuring standard article and site access. Cosmopolitan’s second tier, named Cosmopolitan Unlocked, provides access to events and discounts to the publication’s store, along with the access to digital content included in the standard subscription. The Cosmopolitan Unlocked tier also sells only at a yearly rate, rather than the regular subscription’s monthly rate, at $35 per year. The Unlocked tier costs less for a yearly subscription than the more basic digital-only tier, which comes to $48 for a year based on the $4 monthly charge.

Cosmopolitan also offers a first subscription discount of about 43%, but only for the Cosmopolitan Unlocked tier, pricing it at $20. Offering more benefits at a cheaper annual rate helps to reduce churn, with churn rates being lower on average for annual subscribers than monthly subscribers. The more expensive lower tier has a higher chance of cancelation since customers can cancel each month. 

Vogue also offers a first-promotion discount, but only on its standard subscription, at 52%. Vogue’s significantly more premium tier is called the Vogue Club and is priced at $30 per month or, through its annual locked-in deal, $300 per year. The premium tier grants subscribers access to online and in-person events, exclusive behind-the-scenes newsletters and physical gifts. 

Unlike other publications’ memberships, the Vogue Club membership is not featured on the same subscription page as the standard tier. Instead, the Vogue Club has its own page and Vogue even links to it on its homepage navigation bar. To further differentiate the Vogue Club membership, the first-time discount only applies to the standard tier, making the higher tier feel more premium. It is advertised as a different product and is aimed at creating a sense of exclusivity and premium value. And included with the membership is access to digital content included in the regular tier.

Similar to subscribers of the active lifestyle publications, subscribers of the fashion-focused publications naturally segment themselves as more serious enthusiasts of the publications’ subject matter. But unlike the active lifestyle magazines, Cosmo and — especially — Vogue created tiers to further segment enthusiasts into those with general interest at the standard level and more hardcore enthusiasts at the higher-tier levels.

When viewing the fashion publications’ pricing strategies, they heavily focus on subscriptions, with an emphasis on getting customers to sign up at a lower rate and then auto-renewing at higher rates. Publications like The Wall Street Journal use a similar tactic, as seen in the first edition of this index. While The Wall Street Journal has the most expensive base annual pricing in the news cohort, it also has the highest new subscriber discount rate at 89.74%, with the goal of gaining more subscribers who would then auto-renew at the higher base price. And, of course, expanding the total subscriber base with a low entry price will always support the ad business by increasing viewership and putting more eyes on the page. 

Although focused on subscription revenue, fashion-focused publications differ slightly in approach to subscriptions compared to the rest of the publications included in the index. Vogue offers a more premium product, as signaled through its lower free article count and higher subscription tier and price point, which it positions as an exclusive product. Vogue aims to retain customers through the allure of exclusive access. Cosmopolitan approaches the two-tiered strategy differently by making the second tier with more benefits a much better value proposition — focusing on affordability. Cosmo still offers a basic tier as a flexible entry point for the consumer, but it clearly aims for longer-term customer retention through the lower-priced, but annual, second tier.

05
Culture and politics publications focus on socially relevant content

Publications within the culture and politics group — The Atlantic, Time and New York Magazine — produce content that is generally focused on business, technology, entertainment, culture and politics. The publications in this group are most similar to publications within the news cohort from the first installment of the Digiday Subscription Index, such as The Washington Post, LA Times and The Boston Globe, in terms of article content and overall subscription strategy. Publications from both groups offer timely, news- and entertainment-based content, and they focus on enticing readers to sign up for annual subscriptions to drive revenue. 

The culture and politics publishers score high in the digital threshold experience as a result of their metered gating strategy — a metered paywall model allows readers to freely access any and all content, but only up to a certain number of stories before requiring a subscription. Within the group, Time is the only one that has a registration wall, in which users are granted an additional free article read after registering for a free account, while the other two hold to a strict one free article per month strategy. To note, Time magazine announced on April 26 that it will be removing its paywall on June 1. Digiday+ Research collected data and analyzed information about Time magazine prior to its announcement. 

Publications within this culture and politics group generally offer a deep introductory discount for a set period of time followed by auto-renewal at a higher annual price. New York Magazine, for example, offers an initial promotional pricing of $1 for six weeks in a bid to entice consumers to subscribe at almost the lowest amount possible. While charging customers a nominal fee for the promotion, the magazine, more importantly, captures their credit card information. 

This low-pricing method is effective for publishers that are focused on converting consumers from an introductory low-rate promotion price to a long-term, full-price renewal. It also eliminates the barrier of asking readers to consider whether to pay the full subscription price up front — a decision that could prevent some readers from immediately signing up for a subscription. 

Interestingly, while the culture and politics group does offer extremely low prices for a set introductory period of time, it does not offer steep promotional discount prices for annual subscriptions. It has a slightly above-average annual base price of $61.66 on average versus the $47.14 index average. Instead, publications in this group commonly use the short-term, low-price strategy to encourage new customers to subscribe, while allowing the publications to focus on long-term, subscription-based revenue gains.

The Atlantic’s subscription strategy stands out within the culture and politics group because, unlike the other two publications, it offers readers a free trial subscription period before requiring a paid subscription. The Atlantic’s trial subscription consists of 30 days of free access to its digital content. The trial period has no content restrictions and mimics a regular subscription. However, when consumers sign up for the free trial, they must first enter their credit card information and at the end of the 30-day period, they are charged for a regular subscription unless they cancel first. 

The Atlantic’s free trial subscription method is unique not only to the culture and politics publications, but indeed among all publishers Digiday has analyzed thus far within this year’s subscription index. This strategy may be more enticing to some consumers, especially those who are accustomed to subscribing to video streaming platforms, many of which offer free seven- to 30-day trial periods for new subscribers. It’s worth noting the Atlantic’s free trial subscription mirrors that of Hulu, which gives registered users 30 days of free streaming services before charging them for a subscription — during which period both entities are still monetizing user consumption through ads. It’s important to note The Atlantic does offer a premium tier that is ad-free, but its standard tier that offers the free trial does have ads.

With Time recently announcing that it will remove its long-standing paywall on June 1, it signals a shift for the publisher back toward traditional advertising and sponsorship revenues — a monetization strategy greatly aided by the scale provided by free access. It’s also an indication that its current digital subscription strategy was not as effective in meeting revenue needs.

Despite the culture and politics group’s overall focus on subscription revenue, the three publications within the group offer fewer member benefits to subscribers than the fashion group’s publications do. The culture and politics publications also only offer benefits — online events, special discounts, access to digital archives, podcasts, videos and app features, etc. — in a single batch, rather than providing higher tiers for subscribers to access additional, exclusive benefits. 

Instead, the publications in the culture and politics group rely on the quality of their content to convert and keep subscribers. To that point, publications in this group often hire or host notable guest writers and best-in-class cultural thinkers to pen articles, and their main selling point is access to this expertise. The politics and culture publications function similarly to the regional news group in the news cohort from the first edition of this index by focusing on providing reader content that is relevant to certain social or political circles.

Justification of The Atlantic, Time and New York Magazine’s high annual subscription pricing is based on the exclusive and culturally relevant content they offer, which often comes in the form of commentary on current culture. With high prices, specific curated membership benefits and a heavy gating strategy, the politics and culture group is hyper-focused on its audience and creating timely, influential and often entertaining cultural content in order to drive subscription revenue — a particularly important strategy as digital ad revenue will likely remain capped due to the group’s strict subscription paywalls. 

06
Conclusion – Key takeaways

Readers of the lifestyle cohort naturally segment themselves into two groups: general readers and enthusiasts, with enthusiasts being the primary target audience for subscription products. The publications within this cohort differ in their approaches to benefits, tiers and relevant content.

  • Member-exclusive benefits can be more important than articles.
    • For publications like those within the active lifestyle group, member-exclusive benefits are the main draw for subscribers rather than the article content.
    • They provide benefits that not only give readers more information through member-exclusive content, but also encourage readers to engage with the brands beyond their websites and newsletters to approach enthusiasts of all levels. 
  • Subscription tiers can create stickiness — or the option to step down rather than cancel.
    • Vogue offers a more premium product completely separate from normal site access, meaning readers can sign up for as many as two subscriptions and cancel them separately. 
    • Cosmopolitan offers a premium tier at a better value than its standard tier, but only at an annual subscription rate. A common tier marketing strategy is to label one of the tiers — typically a middle or higher tier — as “best value,” making it the clear choice.
  • Subscription discounts paired with strong, relevant content can create long-term subscribers.
    • A common tactic used by publications is to offer a steep discount for first-time subscribers. This allows readers a low barrier of entry to the paywalls and gives them a taste of the publication’s content — which hopefully encourages them to stick around. 
    • For publications focused on culture and politics, and even local or regional news publications, providing relevant content that serves more niche audiences allows them to justify high subscription prices. Combined with a steep introductory discount, the combination can be effective at getting customers to renew and retain their subscriptions.

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