By Madeleine White,
Co-founder & Editor-in-Chief of The Audiencers

On the surface, it seems like a fairly straightforward question. But when you start to dissect it, there’s so many factors at play…

The reader’s level of engagement (and finding the balance between frustration and engagement) 
The question of soft conversion steps, such as newsletter walls or registration walls, and how many articles to offer before and after these steps
The question of whether it’s more valuable to convert first and engage later (cyclone strategy) or engage gradually over time before converting to subscription
The age-old discussion of metered vs. freemium paywall models 
Your content (in-depth journalism, news headlines, opinion pieces…)
Your audience (B2B, niche…) 
Your revenue priorities – for instance, if you’re very reliant on advertising, then it might be better to offer more articles for free to support this revenue stream
What else should be given for free? Access to commenting, newsletters, podcasts…

So, firstly, let me clear something up – there’s no single answer to this question (sorry!). It depends on all of the above, and more. But what we can do is help you find the answer. 

In this article, we’ll look at some examples of publishers seeking to answer this question, what you can learn from these cases, which metrics you should consider when running your own tests and another important factor that we recommend you consider. 

First things first – why offer articles for free before the paywall?

A successful conversion to subscription is all about balancing frustration and engagement. 

Too much frustration (caused by a paywall, bad user experience, too many ads, etc.) and a user leaves your site to find content elsewhere. 

Leave too much content open and you may well increase engagement but this won’t increase your revenues.

The goal should therefore be to find a middle ground, engaging enough to counterbalance the frustration of the paywall while encouraging a reader to subscribe. 

However, to complicate matters slightly, this “perfect balance” is different for each reader based on their behaviour (level of engagement) and context. Hence the value and importance of dynamic models that adapt to each reader, not only ensuring that you don’t frustrate less engaged readers too much, but also balancing different revenue model options to maximise monetisation from each user.

Testing the number of articles offered for free

The case of Nikkei, Japan

Nikkei Online, the digital version of Nikkei, the Japanese financial news publisher with 2.4M subscribers, chose to integrate a registration wall into the user journey prior to subscription, offering 10 articles for free per month. 

This move proved incredibly valuable – registered readers had a 10x higher conversion rate to subscription compared to anonymous visitors (0.04% vs 0.42% for registered users).

But conversion rate to subscription was still lower than expected and the team found that most users didn’t use up the quota of free articles available, so were never exposed to the paywall.

They therefore tested reducing the number of free articles per month from 10 to just 1. This reduction led to a 20% increase in conversion rates to subscription (1.17% vs 1.72%)

See also: Japan’s Nikkei aims for greater subscriber engagement through new metrics

> The case of Alternatives Economiques, France

In 2019, the French finance publisher, Alternatives Economiques, moved from a generous metered system to a newsletter wall model. This move led to unequivocally higher conversion rates (subscriptions/visitors) and was a real catalyst in the development of their subscription strategy for over two years, enabling them to go from 7,000 to 20,000 digital subscribers. 

Subscription conversion rate by quarter. The red line marks the move to a newsletter wall where a user is blocked and asked to subscribe to the newsletter to access the article.

In 2023, with the looming cookie challenges and desire to create custom reader IDs, Alternatives Economiques switched this newsletter wall to a registration wall, asking readers to create a free account in exchange for access to 2 articles. After this quota, the user will be blocked by a paywall. 

Despite lower unlock rates than the newsletter wall, likely due to the extra friction, the team were pretty satisfied with this situation. Users could now be identified and tracked across devices and sessions. But there was a question hovering around internally – shouldn’t some articles be reserved for subscribers only at all times? 

In a quest to answer this question, they ran a six-month test whereby a selection of articles were reserved for subscribers only, those articles that were directly generating the most subscribers.

The results: 

Note the figures have been changed slightly but the ratios are accurate.

The data here suggests that the publisher is 3.5x more likely to convert a reader to a subscriber if they block the article with a paywall, reserving it for subscribers only. 

But aside from this conversion rate, there were some other learnings that were equally (if not more) important to bear in mind:

The surplus of subscriptions represents only a small percentage of total subscription flow
The subs-only journey led to very few registrations 
Although the subs-only journey led to higher immediate revenue, this model would actually lead to a future loss of income. 

It’s this last point in particular that’s interesting. Instead of a cyclone-style model where you convert first and engage later, this case suggests that it’s more valuable to the business in the long term to let readers discover content and the publication through registration without requiring them to subscribe straight away.

> Propensity models: from content-first to audience-first

Both of these examples prove the importance of testing the number of articles offered before the paywall, as well as the other factors at play that are essential to take into account (registration and lifetime value in particular). But what they also have in common is that they’re employing a content-first strategy, over audience-first. 

“We experimented a lot and always found that a customer-first approach trumps any content-first approach. By that I mean what makes me continue to read, register and sign up may be completely different to what my friend would do. We found propensity models the most helpful.”Maria Bissendorf, Head of Transformation at Hearst UK.

Ultimately, users have different levels of engagement, and thus need a different number of articles (and interactions with your site in general) before they’re likely to subscribe. 

“Your audiences are made up of a large majority of Volatile readers, who arrived at your site probably by chance, through a Google search, a Facebook campaign or because a butterfly with wings the colour of your logo was passing by! They’re there, but they could be somewhere else. These readers consume an average of 1 article per month and make up around 80%, but usually more.

Fortunately, you also attract visitors who know you a little better, and are reading you for the second time this month, maybe more. These are the Occasionals and the Regulars.

Finally, you have a few Fans: subscribers probably, or about to be. They often represent less than 1% of your audience.” – Marion Wyss, CMO at Poool, Co-founder of The Audiencers (ex-ELLE, L’Obs and Challenges)

Hence the value of audience-first strategies where the number of articles offered for free prior to the paywall adapts to a reader’s profile or context.

Which metrics should you be tracking? 

> Engagement 

Ludivine Paquet, Head of Customer Success at Poool, gave a tip for getting started here: 

“Start by looking at your average page view per user per month to estimate how many people will actually see your paywall. 

Then, segment your audience into engagement groups and adapt the number of free articles based on their consumption behaviour (av. PV/month) – this a good first step to find a balance between paywall visibility and conversion rate optimisation.”

For instance, if your average articles read are 2 per month amongst your less engaged user segments, it’s pointless blocking the 5th article with a paywall as no one will see it. However, you want to find a balance between frustration and engagement. So, instead, you could consider blocking the second article with a registration wall in exchange for an additional article for free per month. 

> Visibility rate

The visibility of your premium articles and paywall are key metrics to measure to ensure readers are moving through the funnel towards subscription. 

Premium content visibility: out of total traffic, how many readers are visiting premium vs free content? 

If you employ a freemium model, the first step in the funnel is to ensure readers visit an article where they have the possibility of being blocked by the paywall.

In order to optimise this metric, the assumption is that you’d need to increase the number of premium articles published. However, you can instead work on optimizing the visibility of the content already on your site: 

Place premium content at the top of your homepage
Promote premium content inside other articles
Recommend these articles to your users (at the end of content, in email campaigns etc) 
Place more premium content in your newsletter, on social media, etc.

You can also increase the visibility of your premium product in general across your site, ensuring readers are aware of your offer, the value it provides and ensure the “Subscribe” button is always accessible.

For instance, on The Atlantic, we haven’t yet reached the paywall but already have 2 prompts to subscribe – the header button and banner informing us that we’re going to hit a paywall upon scrolling.

Paywall visibility: out of total traffic on premium articles, how many readers actually see the paywall? I.e. paywall hits

Poool data suggests that between 40-60% of your audience who visit a premium article will never see the paywall! 

Optimising this metric depends on the reason for an underperformance: 

Poor paywall load time –> this could be due to advertising scripts being above the paywall, or unsatisfactory web perfs for your paywall tech
The reader never reaches the paywall –> perhaps the wall is too far down the article (test blocking more content) or even that the journalism isn’t adapted to a reader revenue model (check out this article on how to write for the paywall)

Two other essentials to bear in mind

> Writing for subscriptions

Depending on your business model, you’ll likely have different goals for different articles – for instance, some are valuable for top-of-the-funnel (acquisition and reach), with KPIs like “pageviews,” other content will have the role of fulfilling your journalistic mission (mission journalism) or as bottom-of-funnel content, with the role of converting and retaining subscribers.

Image: courtesy of Mather Economics

If this is the case, it’s hard to ask yourself the question of “how many articles to offer for free” without specifying which “type” of article you’re offering here. And it’s this that can pose a problem with the metered subscription model. If, for instance, a reader visits your site and gets access to 2 top-of-the-funnel articles before being blocked, they won’t likely have understood and experienced the quality and value of your premium product. This may not have been the case however if they had been offered 2 bottom-of-the-funnel articles.

> The revenue trade off

The number of articles to offer for free also depends greatly on the trade off between various revenue streams, particularly advertising vs subscriptions. 

Those at the initial stage of their move to digital will be more dependent on advertising revenue, whilst the most mature publishers (‘pioneers’) have over 50% revenue from digital subscriptions. 

Image courtesy of Mather Economics

For example, if we put the baseline meter at 5 articles for free, you may well have fewer subscribers but you’ll also have fewer page views and ad revenue at risk. However, with a static meter at 2, you’ll have more subscribers but higher ad revenue at risk, and significantly more page views at risk.

Image courtesy of Mather Economics


The seemingly simple question is actually very complex. And the answer differs across publications. But by looking further than just your content – to your audience, lifetime value and wider business goals – as well as with continuous testing, you can find an answer that maximises the revenue of each individual reader. 

Key takeaways: 

Analyze user needs to consider which content is best at converting. With this, you can ensure you block the right content that convinces a reader of your value
Consider registration as a stepping stone towards subscription with the goal of increasing propensity to subscribe and potentially LTV
Don’t just copy someone else’s strategy: make your own, data-informed decision 
An intelligent model is the optimal solution for more mature publishers to adapt to your audience and balance various business goals
Work on balancing frustration and engagement, something that will differ between users
Don’t forget about premium content and paywall visibility, 2 essential metrics that are often overlooked.

About the author: Madeleine White is Co-founder & Editor-in-Chief of The Audiencers, and Head of International at Poool, where she leads the expansion of its products and services in the global digital publishing market.

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