With newspapers such as The New York Times winning 125 Pulitzer prizes in a century (3 in 2018), the widespread fame and success of certain American publishers is uncontestable.
Particularly in regards to their communication and pricing strategies, these popular newspapers are models for publishers all over the world in. The New York Times’ 2020 report for example, which makes reference to changes to their strategies and to the company's new goals, is every publisher’s inspiration.
In this document, we have decided to focus on three publishers: The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal. This analysis deals with the UX they created for their readers as well as looking at before and during the conversion process of their readers into subscribers.
First, we’ll see how these newspapers manage to make the readers understand the importance of paying to access quality content.
Then, we’ll look at how they convince an audience with their paywalls and various offers.
Finally, we’ll see how these publishers manage to develop their paywalls depending on tests or customizations in order to offer the best user experience in every context.
Our analysis is composed of 4 parts:
- How to explain a content access model to users
- How to design a well-suited and attractive paywall
- How to customize the subscription experience in order to make it as relevant as possible
- How to take advantage of paywalls’ adjustability
In each part, you will find key components identified by Poool. They will help you understand the methods used by those publishers.
Here are Poool’s first 3 statements:
- Since advertisement is a controversial monetization model, it could be interesting to opt for data collection as an alternative to subscribing to create value
- It could be relevant to deploy different strategies for the website and the mobile app because readers use these two media in differing ways
- Having some offers adapted to users’ characteristics (student, foreigner,…) is a good way to attract bigger audiences
Part 1 - How to explain a content access model to users
Each model has an impact on readers’ experience
In the world of online newspapers, there are several business models: freemium, hard paywall, metered paywall or free access.
In America, publishers tend to use a metered paywall, which is a paywall with a pop-up meter that appears when the reader reaches the number of free articles allowed (which is chosen by the publisher).
The New York Times and The Washington Post are currently using this model.
According to a 2016 study from the American Press Institute, 62 of the 98 American newspapers analysed use a metered paywall to gather subscriptions. The average number of free articles given is 5 per month before the paywall blocks the reader. It allows users to read some articles before they subscribe so each visitor can get a preview of the UX and measure the quality of the journal.
The Wall Street Journal uses a dynamic paywall offering several user experiences based on the user’s likelihood to subscribe, even if a lot of users are still blocked by a hard paywall. After multiple attempts, we were only able to analyze the hard state of this paywall.
Whatever the chosen model, its impact on readers’ experience is immediate. How do these 3 publishers manage this experience? How do they quickly communicate their model to the reader?
Encouraging the reader to subscribe with self-promotion areas
Many self-promotion areas are visible on the homepage - for example a banner at the bottom of the screen. This aims at letting readers know about any special offers or simply encouraging them to subscribe.
On the home page of The New York Times, we can see a self-promotion area between the thumbnails and that day’s articles. The sentences are very short and remind the reader of the significance of independent journalism. These sentences are often followed by a call-to-action (for example “Subscribe to the Times”) which encourages subscription thanks to the ease of access to the sign-up page.
Occasionally, a message also appears in the middle of the screen which also encourages a reader to subscribe. Its impact on the reader is strengthened by the fact that the color’s used are the same as that of the paywall.
That is the case for The Washington Post and The New York Times.
Both of these publishers also display messages which warn the user that they use metered paywalls.
The Washington Post has a top-banner which gives the reader a choice between subscribing or receiving an email encouraging subscription later. They’ll instantly receive an initial email, and then a reminder two days later.
The New York Times has a small meter on the current page which allows readers to see how many articles are left.
From an UX point of view, a meter is very interesting because it allows publishers to help readers to understand the system. They do this in an instructive way whilst still creating pressure. This can be useful but also frustrating for users.
It is also important to add that these paywalls appear immediately after the reader reaches the limited number of free articles. This speed is certainly pleasant for the user because they won’t begin reading an article before suddenly being blocked. The display performance is a great aspect of a good UX.
Convey a striking message to convince the user
The tone has a strong impact on a reader - for example, on The New York Times’ website, quotes are made up of two or three short sentences emphasizing the quality of the newspaper and the fact that it meets the expectations of its subscribers.
As surprising as it seems, the three publishers don’t seem to use iconography to draw their audiences’ attention on their paywalls. They use vivid colors and strong punchlines to attract people. The design isn’t disregarded; it is refined and clear.
On the most renowned newspaper websites in the United States, it is very common to see the publishers trying to explain their prices by highlighting the quality of their content.
They most often want to show users that they have to pay to enjoy quality journalism.
For The Washington Post, the reader is crucial for the future of journalism: by paying to read, the reader finances “real journalism” and allows the company to survive.
However, for the Wall Street Journal, the reader is encouraged to pay to get not only facts and quantified information, but also an advanced analysis of this information.
Here, we can see that the publisher wants to convince the user of its added value. They consider themselves as ”America’s most trusted newspaper” and hope that a reader thinks of them as experts of political analysis.
Part 2 - How to design a well-suited and attractive paywall
To each publisher their own paywall
The design of the paywall is an elaborate element but should still be practical and instructional. It seems that publishers don’t want to confuse their readers: everything has to be flowing.
However, is it better to design a small or big paywall? Yet again, there are many different ways to consider the design of a paywall.
On The New York Times’ website, the paywall is huge and scrollable. It contains a lot of information about the subscription. It is easy to make sense of this approach as, here, the publisher wants to allow the reader to make a choice without trying to choose an offer for him.
There are two versions of this paywall. One is a fixed version, which appears and stays in the middle of the screen, and the other is a version which appears as the reader goes down in the page.
The first version has a header which can display various colors depending on the colors of the self-promotion areas that the reader has encountered before.
The Washington Post’s subscription offers however, are displayed on a page that only opens if the user clicks the “more” button. The paywall does not include a lot of information and is fairly small. It is a very minimalist rectangle with a clear and colorful button which redirects the reader to a payment page.
On one hand, we considered whether the lack of information on a paywall, such as the one we’ve just seen, is blocking readers’ decision-making concerning the type of offer they could be interested in.
On the other hand, a paywall area with too much information could irritate certain readers due to it being less easy to read.
Some online newspapers use paywalls that are only composed of a few buttons which are placed right under the article.
That is the case for those who offer premium content and use a hard paywall (3% of American newspapers, according to the American Press Institute). None of the articles on their website are free. The reader has no choice but to pay to be able to read their articles.
This is one of the models chosen by The Wall Street Journal (a dynamic paywall). The hard state of the paywall is composed of just two buttons: one for the subscription and the other to log in. Sometimes it is possible to watch a video related to the subject of the article in the paywall.
Mastering the paywall experience over paywall unlocking
When publishers use a metered paywall, the first articles are free.
In a previous analysis of The New York Times, we realized that the reader had to go through several steps before unlocking the paywall.
Since this first analysis, the number of free articles has substantially decreased, from 10 to 5.
For example, the messages that the reader could receive along the paywall unlocking experience of the New York Times have completely disappeared. All that is left is the meter. It reminds the reader that their reading will be blocked by the paywall, which may be frustrating.
We noticed that The Washington Post also doesn’t send any messages reminding the reader that their next article will be blocked.
It would be interesting to try to develop the design or wording used in the the readers’ first free article. This could allow the publisher to gain more reader support as well as pre-alerting them to the appearance of the paywall through using appropriate vocabulary.
Part 3 - How to customize the subscription experience in order to make it as relevant as possible
Convincing a large number of readers with a very simple process
On The Washington Post’s website, a user can reach the payment page by just clicking on the colored button. They can only see the subscription details if they click on the “more” button on the paywall. The pre-selection of a subscription offer tends to simplify the process, even if the publisher may have to upsell better offers in the future.
On The New York Times’ website, the readers have to simply click on the offer that suits their needs and they are redirected to the payment page. They can do this in just one step as all of the subscription offers are already on the paywall.
For these two newspapers, a reader can subscribe in just one click! It is an interesting observation since we know how critical the conversion rate between the moment a user arrives on the subscription page and the moment he converts is.
On The Wall Street Journal’s website, any reader who clicks on the subscription button is redirected to a selection page. When they click on an offer, they are taken straight to the payment page.
To subscribe to The New York Times, the user can choose to sign up with either their email address or indirectly through a third party such as Facebook or Google, which is the case for the Washington Post’s payment page. Once the user is connected, they can pay with credit card, PayPal or by bank transfer.
The process used on the Washington Post’s website is also very simple. The user has to simply choose if they wish to pay monthly or annually, type in their email address to create an account or log in and, on the same page, pay with credit card, PayPal or Amazon Pay.
The subscription process is slightly longer on The Wall Street Journal’s website because the user has to type their entire postal address and phone number, even if they chose a digital offer. After this, regarding the payment, it is only possible to pay with a credit card, which could be an obstacle for regular Paypal consumers.
Moreover, if a user needs help in choosing an offer, they would have to re-enter their contact details for another form.
Give the user some choice with multiple offers
It is very important to talk about the price because this could be the obstacle which is stopping a user from reading online content.
Generally, online newspapers have a basic offer which permits an unlimited access to their articles from any device. This offer fluctuates between $4 and $10 per month (more details about the prices of American newspapers). In some cases, the price can be up to $37 per month (for The Wall Street Journal for example).
The New York Times’ offers:
- Basic offer for $4/month
- ‘All access’ subscription for $12,52/month which, in addition to the basic offer, contains puzzles, recipes and a digital replica of the print version of the newspaper
- ‘All access Plus’ subscription for $17,52/month which, in addition to the ‘all access’ offer, contains the possibility to contact the reporters and to watch exclusive live content
The Washington Post’s offers:
- Basic offer for $10/month
- Basic offer but for $6/month ( a lower price for readers who convert from the paywall)
- ‘Premium Digital’ offer for $15/month which allows the user to make a subscription for another person for free and to give a one-month pass to another person every month. The user also has unlimited access to the downloadable ebooks of award-winning reporters
The Wall Street Journal’s offers:
- ‘Digital’ offer for $36,99/month + fees which grants an unlimited access to the website and the mobile/tablet app
- ‘Print’ offer for $37,99/month + fees which means the reader receives the daily print newspaper and grants them unlimited access to the website and the mobile/tablet app
- ‘Digital + Print’ offer for $386,99/month + fees which is a mix of the two previous offers
It is important to mention that the subscription prices are halved if a user pays for the entire year.
For these three newspapers, there are reduced prices for the basic offer for students and associate professors:
- $1/month for The New York Times
- $5/month for The Washington Post
- more or less $4 or $5/month for The Wall Street Journal
Adapting the offer to the reader’s context for more relevance
On The Wall Street Journal, the customization of the subscription offer consists in adapting to each user. To achieve this, the publisher chose to use location detecting devices to locate the reader, allowing the user to pay a fitting price and in their own currency.
Here, we can see that the reader doesn’t have the choice between various offers. They will only be offered the digital subscription, which is the most fitting offer as the print newspaper is not delivered outside of the United States.
Each of these newspapers offer student subscriptions. Apart from The Washington Post, whose verification is after the payment process, the user has to go through a student verification process before the payment.
Attract people who are disinclined to subscribe with special offers
According to a second study of the American Press Institute, special offers make a lot of users subscribe. In fact, 45% of American readers have subscribed because of a special offer or a free trial.
Generally, the first week or month are discounted. The first month often costs $1.
There are also limited special offers, for example:
- The Wall Street Journal’s prices were reduced by half in the United States and were very low for the rest of the world (1€, 1£ or 1CHF) during their “Spring sale”
- The New York Times sometimes have 24 hours offers, which allow the users to save up to 60% off the normal cost
Perhaps The Washington Post reduced its prices for readers who unlock the paywall as those who make it to the paywall are very interested in news and are likely to read several articles in a row. They could easily become regular customers.
The Washington Post knows that the amount of readers who make it to the paywall are significantly interested in the newspaper
The basic offer costs $60 rather than $100 a year, saving 40%. This is the default subscription offer and the reader doesn’t have any choice but it is by far the most fitting offer.
Whatsmore, if the user has spent some time on the subscription page without choosing an offer, they may receive a discount offer. Here, the publisher aims to convince hesitant readers by giving them this tempting offer.
Part 4 -How to take advantage of paywalls’ adjustability
Consider paywalls as living elements to develop them depending on what’s happening
Digital brings an amazing added value to each publisher.
For example, it is possible to analyse campaign results on the audience and adapt strategies accordingly in order to boost subscriptions and subscriber retention.
The prices, the design and the message could evolve depending on the period, the habits of the users or any changes in the newspaper.
This is very noticeable on The New York Times’ website. The newspaper is always evolving, regarding colors or phrases used. The paywall’s set-up has to change in order to adapt to each event.
Define a range of strategies which are adapted to the device
Even if mobile websites are almost the same as desktop websites, we realized that the mobile apps of the three publishers have some differences worth noting.
For example, some of Wall Street Journal’s articles are available for free on the mobile app. This portable version of the newspaper is freemium.
Nevertheless, the special offers on the desktop website are not available on the app. The user has to pay the full price if they decides to subscribe on the app.
Subscribing to the content produced by a particular journalist can be done simply by clicking on their logo.
We can see that there are some advertisement areas on free articles. This is most probably because these articles are targeted at a more fickle audience, who are accustomed to seeing ads and so won’t be bothered by them.
For The Washington Post and The New York Times, the app and the mobile website also have a metered paywall.
The New York Times allows users to check a daily news brief.
When the paywall is unlocked, they can activate a free trial for 30 days if they enter their bank credentials with Google Pay or Apple Pay.
Picking the best monetization models
There are ways to create value with other monetization strategies, aside from the regular paywall, which will encourage people to subscribe, such as advertisement and data collection.
Indeed, monetization through adverts works but it is also controversial as it could ruin the user experience and encourage frustrated users to use an adblocker. Moreover, these ads could lessen the impact and the perceptibility of self-promotion areas.
The New York Times decided to reduce its reliance on ads in order to improve the user experience and its revenue from advertisement went down from 50% in 2011 to 30% in 2018 (source: strategies.fr). The sales of advertisement areas on the newspaper’s digital version decreased by 6% in just one year (source: nypost.com). The publisher communicates a lot about these evolutions.
Despite these efforts to get rid of the advertisement model, the publisher asks the users to deactivate their adblocker in order to allow ads on the website to “support journalism [they] can trust”. A thin bar appears on the bottom of the article, while the user is reading which redirects to a tutorial explaining how to deactivate the adblocker.
Other than adverts, publishers are also able create value by collecting users’ data. This not only allows publishers to better understand their audiences, but it also creates engagement and therefore customer loyalty. For example, a publisher can collect readers’ email addresses by letting them sign in/log in to its website, even if they have not yet subscribed. This data will be useful for publishers, allowing them to target readers by sending them personalized content that interests them, helping to convert them.
On Washington Post’s website, the reader has a personal profile where they can sign up to newsletters arranged by topic. This is an effective way of guiding them towards content that may interest them, which they would be more likely to pay for than content that they don’t find interesting.
For some newspapers such as The New York Times, newsletters ordered by topics are considered as premium content. However, the reader can receive a daily news brief every morning in their mailbox they wish.
It is very important to note that these data collections imply meticulous adjustment work in order to respect the new european data protection regulation (GDPR).
What to remember about the UX applied by these 3 publishers
After this analysis, it seems that certain characteristics of the UX stand out:
- Even if there are numerous self-promotion areas, they all emphasize the impact of the subscription offer
- There is no need to use long sentences to attract readers. A striking message about their needs and the significance of their payment is a simple and effective way to pique their interest
- A meter is a simple way of making a user understand how the subscription works. However, it may create frustration
- If access to the payment page is easy, there is more chance that the reader will finish the payment process
- Having some offers adapted to users’ characteristics (student, foreigner,...) is a good way to attract bigger audiences
- Special offers attract readers who are disinclined to pay for subscription
- Since advertisement is a controversial monetization model, it could be interesting to opt for data collection to create value as an alternative to subscription
- A paywall could be considered as a changing element (price, design, message) involving various features (period, geographic area, tests...)
- It could be relevant to deploy different strategies for the website and the mobile app due to the fact that readers use these two devices in differing ways
To conclude, numerous characteristics of the UX can be modified and adapted while setting up a paywall.
It is crucial to consider the content as the major element in the monetization strategy. The perceived value of the articles is the most convincing way to make readers subscribe. With a huge amount of articles each month (up to 5000 for The New York Times or The Washington Post), these popular publishers consider themselves as experts and guarantee their readers articles that fit their needs in terms of analysis or impartiality.
In the end, it is important to not consider the paywall as a tool which is frozen in time and identical for every user but as an evolving element that can always be improved so that it is adapted to any reader’s situation (device, country, status, period,...).
Even if these three paywalls already work and satisfy regular readers, it would be interesting to see if the addition of new monetization models, such as payment per article, would make more occasional readers pay a subscription. This would allow publishers to generate new incomes as well as grow their audiences.