Digital Publishing: Building a Paywall That Works

You’ve read about how There’s A Digital Media Crash. You saw the articles about how the Pivot to Video has turned out to be a Pivot to Nowhere or a Pivot to Declining Pageviews or some other creative spin on that ghastly phrase. And if you haven’t seen any of those, perhaps it’s because you were busy learning How to Survive the Media Apocalypse.

Sure, maybe “Apocalypse” is a bit strong, but that doesn’t mean media companies won’t need to do a bit of prepping to navigate the changes in the publishing industry.

For some kinds of publishers, the solution to declining ad revenue and other problems plaguing the industry is going behind the paywall. While the history of paywalls is fraught with failed experiments, today’s audience is more willing than ever to pay for online content. Publishers once forced to tear down their walls have gone back behind the wall to some success.

But is building a paywall a guaranteed ticket to success? Well, when you’re directly monetizing your audience, those monetization solutions must fit your audience. There’s no one-size-fits-all wall solution, which means publishers have to experiment and test their wall until they find what sticks.

Looking to monetize your audience with premium content? Here are a few things publishers must keep in mind as they break out the bricks, mix up the mortar, and start building the wall.

Finding the right paywall model for you.

Pretty much every paywall will fall under one of four models:

  • Hard paywall: requires payment to view any content.
  • Soft (metered): grants access to a set number of articles before hitting a paywall.
  • Premium subset: some content is free, but premium is behind a hard paywall.
  • Hybrid premium: places a subset of premium content behind a metered paywall.

Which paywall will be right for you? That depends on your content, among other things. Publishers with rigorous or specialized content may not need to allow audiences to sample content because those audiences already know what quality they can expect. In that case, they might be able to parlay that prestigious reputation into a successful hard paywall, as the Financial Times has.

Otherwise, the publishing industry has largely converged around a metered paywall.

Setting the meter: how much is too much?

If you go with a metered model, the next question is how many articles to allow before the paywall comes up. Again, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer to this question.

For a meter to work, publishers must strike the right balance between maximizing subscription revenue and showing ads. After all, digital ads might not be the sustaining force they once were, but they’re still an important source of revenue for most publishers. Put the meter too high, and you lose out on subscription revenue. Make it too low, and you miss out on the opportunity to display ads to audiences, many of whom would never subscribe anyway.

Finding that balance depends on the type of content, the audience, and a willingness to experiment. That might mean tweaking the meter as time goes on. Notably, several publishers have moved towards a tighter meter. The Boston Globe dropped their article limit from 5 to 2, while the New York Times started at 20 articles before dropping to 10, then five, and in 2018, four.

The wall isn’t always about money.

Okay, well, it kind of is.

But that doesn’t mean that money is the only thing you can ask for in exchange for content.

After all, if a visitor isn’t familiar with your content, immediately greeting them with a request for money will probably be met with a lukewarm response. Why not try, for example, getting the email address first?

Publishers can grant entry to certain site sections, a “guest pass” for premium content, or access to additional articles in exchange for an email address. It’s a lower-level hurdle that more users will be willing to clear, plus it gives publishers a communication channel where they can access their audience directly. That can come in handy.

Use email to build relationships and nurture your audience into subscribers.

To convert site visitors into paying subscribers, publishers must convince those visitors of their content’s value. Once you’ve got an email address, you’ve got a way to deliver that valuable content directly to your audience, showing them why they should subscribe.

Building a strong email program goes hand-in-hand with building a successful subscription revenue business model. While some publishers can build their digital programs on the back of their reputation, publishers who don’t have a century of prestige to sell must rely on building audience relationships.

Getting visitors to subscribe to one or two or even 10 email newsletters means that they’ve given you permission to deliver content on a regular basis. Each newsletter is another opportunity to engage them, nurture them, and perhaps convert them into a paying subscriber. This direct line of reader engagement is what makes newsletters the “most efficient digital channel for converting readers to subscribers.”

Optimize the paywall to the content.

You don’t have to show all visitors to your site the same generic invitation to subscribe. When it comes to email capture, publishers can double their conversion rate by tailoring the capture widget to the type of content the reader visits.

For example, if the visitor is viewing an article about food, an invitation to subscribe to a food newsletter would attract more interest than a more generic offer. Similarly, experimenting with a contextualized subscription offer could help.

[Read more on email capture best practices here.]

You can even use the type of content to decide whether you even show the paywall at all. Visitors to a particular type of article (such as a rigorous piece of journalism) might generally be more willing to pay than someone who comes to your site for a lighter piece about entertainment or the like. In that case, it might be more lucrative to collect the ad revenue than to show a hard paywall.

Get personal with paywall personalization.

The New York Times made headlines when they announced on December 1, 2017, that they’re scaling back their free articles, but they also indicated an interest in further paywall developments. According to Bloomberg, “The Times may eventually offer a different number of free articles to non-subscribers based on how they arrive or their reading habits.” In fact, this came to fruition in November 2018.

Each publishers may have a different audience, but no audience is a monolith. Individuals have differences in behavior, reading habits, and willingness to pay. By building a paywall tailored to the characteristics of individual members of your audience, you can maximize your revenue per visitor, whether that revenue comes from programmatic ads or paid subscriptions.

So how can you personalize the paywall to the reader? The Times alludes to tweaking their paywall based on traffic source. How a visitor arrives may affect their willingness to pay. For example, visitors from Facebook tend to read articles in passing and quickly return to the platform. These visitors are much less likely to pay for a subscription, so it might be better to forego the subscription offer and collect the ad revenue.

The location of a visitor, their reading history, and other data points can all contribute to a visitor’s likelihood of paying for content. However, they may affect particular publishers’ audiences differently, if at all. It all comes down to experimentation.

Testing tweaks to the paywall.

The New York Times arguably boasts the most successful paywall in digital publishing, so publishers may be tempted to merely replicate their paywall model and sit back. But if publishers should replicate anything about the Times paywall, it’s their openness to testing and tweaking their paywall.

Rigorous A/B testing can help optimize your subscription revenue while preventing paywall tweaks from derailing your business model. While most publishers lack the resources to build a flexible in-house paywall system, there are agile solutions available to help time-strapped publishers change up their paywalls on the fly.

The revenue question has proven a tough test for even the biggest publishers, but with an optimized paywall, it’s a test publishers may be more likely to pass.

Melanie Angel
Editor, PostUp PlayBook

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