Digital Publishing: Beyond Paywall Strategy

Paywalls are everywhere. As digital publishers realize they must monetize audiences directly to secure their revenue, more and more content is going behind the wall. But for publishers to pursue a paywall strategy, they need the quality content to back it up. They also need a way to make sure their audience sees it.

Is there a problem with paywalls?

In 2018, it’s not just editors and higher-ups championing paywalls. As Digiday reported January 2, even journalists themselves are coming around to premium content:

“A decade ago, the idea of restricting access to your journalism was anathema to newsrooms, then trained by the ad model to maximize traffic. The New York Times had to fight this attitude in 2005 when it launched TimesSelect, a two-year experiment that put columnists’ work behind a paywall; and then the sitewide paywall that followed in 2011. …

“Since then, the adoption of paywalls has accelerated as publishers realize digital news can’t live on advertising alone. There’s also safety in numbers. It’s hard to find a newsroom in the United States that doesn’t have some type of reader revenue program.”

Still, many remain skeptical that walling off content will sustain the digital publishing industry. Critics point to the abundance of free content, “leaky” paywalls, and a paywall strategy’s sometimes frustrating impact on user experience. Rob Howard writes in NewCo Shift:

“Take a moment to consider the emotions you feel every time you hit one of these barriers. You start to engage with an interesting story, then you’re slapped with a pop-up. You roll your eyes. A strange mix of indignity and disgust washes over you. And most of the time, you click away.

“You don’t need an MBA to realize that it’s less than ideal for your customers to feel disgusted by you immediately before you ask them for money. This isn’t a manipulative casino or carnival game — your readers are thoughtful intellectuals with abundant choices, not conversions to be optimized.”

So what are publishers to do?

With advertising revenue on the decline, that quality publishers must monetize audiences directly is no question. But publishers can’t just set up a wall and expect the money to come rolling right in.  While building a well-optimized paywall can increase subscription revenue, no amount of testing and tweaking will convince audience to pay for thin, unoriginal content.

As Howard points out, “The reality is that 80 percent of current-events news is interchangeable, regardless of your source.” For publishers to successfully move from the ad-driven business model, they must go beyond paywall strategy to differentiate themselves. That means building relationships with the audience, creating valuable content, and convincing their audience of that value.

Here are 5 things publishers need to do for their paywall strategy to succeed.

1) Play to your content strengths, then commit.

Publishers won’t distinguish themselves without quality content. In 2017, publishers saw firsthand what happens when they failed to deliver on this with the Pivot to Video.

When media companies like Tastemade found video success, other publishers tried to capitalize on the higher CPMs of video ads. Not only did their pageviews drop, it also alienated the audiences with cheap content they didn’t want. These publishers failed to notice that it wasn’t video-for-video’s-sake driving Tastemade’s popularity; it was the fact that their videos literally look good enough to eat. The same can’t be said for the glut of publishers who put text over stock images and call it a video strategy.

Publishers behind the paywall must pursue quality first, even if that means narrowing your scope and focusing on a niche topic. Specialized digital native publishers like The Information and Stratechery drive subscription revenue with unique, high-quality tech content that resonates with their devoted audiences. These publishers have a reputation for quality now, but how do you establish that reputation in the first place?

It helps to establish a connection first.

2) Connect audiences with your content directly, outside of the platform.

When readers arrive at a site via Facebook, they often leave the site just as quickly as they got there. When Facebook is constantly tweaking the algorithm that delivers this traffic, any strategy that relies on social referrals is risky at best.

When Facebook tested out a separate newsfeed for publishers in several countries, affected publishers saw their traffic tank overnight. While Facebook’s experiments with completely removing publisher posts from the news feed didn’t affect American publishers in that case, the ramifications of the move were a wake-up call. If Facebook ever decided to pursue that strategy stateside, social-dependent publishers would be out of luck. For many publishers, Facebook’s algorithm changes at the beginning of the year were rough enough.

To hedge against changes to platform algorithms, publishers must make sure they have a way to reach them directly. The email address provides that direct link. With active onsite capture widgets, publishers can increase the chances of engaging readers beyond that first visit.

3) Build strong relationships with a strong email newsletter strategy.

Once you’ve got the email address, use it to connect with the audience, nurturing them from casual readers into paying audiences. But you can’t just send any old marketing emails; you need a newsletter that differentiates your content and demonstrates its value.

While many publishers have used an email “paywall” for ad-blocking users or to provide additional access to content, some people are wary of handing over their email address. By offering a newsletter, you deliver something of greater value to readers.

This value exchange may encourage more people to sign up; once they’ve signed up, the value may keep them coming back. On average, a visitor from Facebook will rack up 2.3 lifetime pageviews; an email subscriber will view your content 40 times. It’s through this engagement that you can strengthen ties with your readers by showing them that your content is worth paying for.

4) Create strong content, then make sure audiences see it.

Why is email such a powerful tool for publishers? Email delivers content to the reader directly. You don’t have to wait for the algorithm to deliver it to them — if it ever does. It arrives when you want it to, as often as they’ve signed up to receive it.

That’s why many publishers (like the Washington Post and New York Times) offer dozens of newsletters. Each newsletter means an additional chance to engage the reader. Expanding email newsletter offerings allows publishers to connect more frequently with readers and engage them with more relevant content. You can also tailor email capture widgets to provide a contextual newsletter offer based on the article it appears on, which can make audiences twice as likely to subscribe.

5) When it comes to setting your paywall strategy, don’t forget the user experience.

Some audiences report frustration with the user experience caused by implementing a paywall strategy. Publishers can address this with a flexible paywall solution that allows you to optimize the wall’s characteristics to your audience. In the meantime, you can’t underestimate the user experience provided by email.

One of the appeals of email is the self-contained, easily-digestible experience. When the web is an intimidating, endlessly-scrolling void of content, email is calmer and cleaner and ultimately satisfying, as a report by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism pointed out. Some publishers take advantage of this to offer newsletters with email-exclusive content or newsletters where audiences can get information without ever leaving the inbox. It may not drive site traffic, but it can definitely help build the brand in audiences’ minds.

For publishers to succeed beyond the paywall, they must consistently deliver the content that creates these devoted fanbases, but they also must make sure that audiences see it. That requires a connection with the reader, a connection that can start with email.

Melanie Angel
Editor, PostUp PlayBook

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