Study: Free Digital Sampling Increases Online News Subscriptions

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It may seem counterproductive to offer free access to content you normally keep locked behind a paywall, but the benefits of limited access have been clearly demonstrated. The following study asked the question, does relaxing paywall access help or hurt digital news subscriptions?

Key Takeaways:

  • When news sites relax paywall access to their sites, they leverage the power of sampling to increase subscribers.
  • Temporarily suspending paywall restrictions on certain major stories or trends serves the public interest while conditioning new visitors to pay for access later.

CATONSVILLE, MD, August 1, 2023 – A new study has revealed that when news sites temporarily relax or suspend restrictions tied to paywall access, they will eventually see an increase in subscribers. This reinforces the power and the value of sampling as a marketing strategy. But there’s more.

The study, which is published in the INFORMS journal Marketing Science, is called “Paywall Suspensions and Digital News Subscriptions.” The authors of the study are from Sungkyunkwan University in Seoul, and Emory University in Atlanta.

The researchers found that when certain news organizations temporarily suspended paywall restrictions on certain stories of public interest, like the Covid-19 pandemic or the U.S. presidential election, or when they provided free access up to a certain number of articles, those new visitors were more likely to become subscribers when the restrictions were re-imposed.

“Our analyses revealed that the temporary paywall suspensions not only increased the amount of traffic during the suspension period, but also increased the likelihood that those visitors would become paid subscribers,” said the authors. “We further found that the variety of content consumed during their period of ‘free’ access increased the likelihood that visitors would actually choose to subscribe.”

The researchers used clickstream data from a major news organization centered on paywall suspension activity, and analyzed how those paywall suspensions influenced subsequent subscription decisions among users. The research more closely examined the impact of relaxed paywall subscriptions on major stories that included: a mid-Atlantic blizzard in 2016, and the 2016 U.S. presidential election and inauguration.

“One of the business concerns within news organizations is that relaxing the paywall for major events will cannibalize paid consumption,” said the authors. “But this dynamic is effectively counteracted by an expansion where consumers who weren’t willing to pay before have now gotten a taste of the content. That exposure lets them experience its value, relieving the consumer’s uncertainty and helping to build a stronger relationship with that site visitor.”

“One of the underlying factors that may also contribute to the positive effects of relaxed paywall subscription during certain times of important news is the public service aspect of the gesture, which helps to build trust with the public and the news consumer,” added the authors. “So, not only is the temporary suspension of paywall restrictions good business, but it also fulfills a societal obligation that news organizations have to keep the public informed.”

About INFORMS and Marketing Science

Marketing Science is a premier peer-reviewed scholarly marketing journal focused on research using quantitative approaches to study all aspects of the interface between consumers and firms. It is published by INFORMS, the leading international association for operations research and analytics professionals. More information is available at or @informs.

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Melody McKinnon is a Canadian digital entrepreneur with 25 years of experience in a wide range of online business models, backed by a formal business education and enhanced by training and mentorship. She owns Canadian Digital Media Group and is the author of 7 Recession Proof Online Businesses to Start From Home. Melody covers online business and digital marketing on

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