Not long ago I wrote about the ways in which mobile apps, and particularly those of media organizations, can secure opt-ins for push notification campaigns. And in the process I spent an awful long time looking around media apps: some I use anyway, and others I downloaded to try out.

Some media organizations offer their content free for life, or at least most of their content. They either fund this model through advertising or have some long-term plan for monetizing the many millions of eyeballs they might attract with a free service. But others earn revenue direct through subscription, and it is those I’d like to talk about.

The Challenge Of Conversion

For a media organization looking to sell an app subscription, everything boils down to a rather simple challenge: within a certain amount of time, or page views, the user has to be convinced to pay a certain amount of money to subscribe. But there are several separate decisions to be made (hopefully using A/B testing of course!). Most obviously: how much content should be offered for free?

To illustrate why that matters, consider the extremes. If literally NO content can be consumed for free, organic acquisition becomes very difficult, and it is impossible for consumers to build confidence before committing to a purchase. On the other hand, if too much content is free, the incentive to buy is reduced - in some cases to nothing.

But even when we arrive at the right balance, we still need to create convincing in-app campaigns that drive the user to purchasing a subscription. These campaigns need to include messages that are persuasive, relevant, and perhaps most important of all, well-timed.

To take an example of an app that does not appear to use in-app messages or campaigns at all to drive subscription, take a look at these three (relatively consecutive) screens from The Economist app:


What we are looking at here is a failure to SELL subscriptions. The first screen on the left is, believe it or not, the first screen seen on launch. Fine, it gives the sketchiest information on the benefits of registration, but this is just a little hidden in a screen that is dominated by a log in request (strange for a first time user).

If we continue without registering we actually see individual magazines (not shown) and only after downloading these issues are we asked to subscribe via either the small grey button bottom left (in the central image) or after clicking on a particular story that is not free (there is no indication which are and which are not).

Even when we get to the actual ‘selling’ screen, on right, it still doesn’t feel like I’m clear on what I am getting - and I am a regular reader of The Economist!

Other apps are not necessarily much better. Here the Financial Times goes straight into the hard sell, showing me this screen before I have actually read anything. This feels like a mistake, and I can’t help feeling that it would be wise to let me get some feel for the content before this message is displayed. Remember - timing is everything. The problem is compounded by the total refusal to sell the Financial Times. Why is subscription worthwhile? Why should I bother registering? No information is forthcoming.


To take a look at how it can be done, step forward The New York Times. The in-app messages below is displayed as the first screen I see in the app. The first thing that is worth pointing out is the relative insignificance of the login option in comparison with the Economist. That is as it should be - those who already have an account will find a way to login. Casual browsers are harder to satisfy.

But also note the large ‘continue’ button that let’s me dismiss this message if I wish and get straight to the main event. And more importantly, the time-sensitive language and clear call to action drive real engagement. This is a classic ‘early offer’ that builds commitment early on by collecting my details and making it much more likely I will stick around for some time.


Although I clicked ‘continue’ at no point did it feel like I wasn’t able to use the whole app, so it is more than possible this message is simply a smart way to collect user data.

Even better is the message I see when I come back for the fourth or fifth time to the app, shown below.


This is a mini-masterpiece of concisely communicating the value of this app and why subscribing might be a great idea. I can still click ‘No Thanks’ (and when I do the trial continues - I haven’t reached the end of it yet!) but I am almost certainly, having read plenty of content already and been made aware of the scope and quality of the product, ready to ‘See My Options’ as the dialogue puts it. If you need to drive mobile users to subscription, you would do well to implement something similar.