When talking about the increase of digital subscriptions, we often think about paywall systems, whether they are called “dynamic” or “intelligent”. Paywalls are indeed useful tools for publishers: they are at the heart of the relationship between readers and contents. Thus, they will impact all monetization issues, be it ad monetization or monetization linked to the selling of content (per article sold, 24 hours pass, digital subscription and so on). However, when talking about converting readers into subscribers, paywalls are only the emerging part of the iceberg!

Paywalls are indeed only a way to convert readers into subscribers, they are only a tool. Paywalls are not the reason why readers subscribe to a publication. Other far more important reasons must be questioned:

  1. Value proposition

For which reasons do readers subscribe: a different way to process content, an experience?

2. Quality of paid contents

For which type of content do readers subscribe? For which services?

3. Visibility of paid contents

Are the offer and value proposition introduced to the reader?

4. Audience and brand

Do the value proposition and contents strengthen the audience and the brand?

5. User experience

Does the user experience facilitate access and consumption of content?

In this document, we will focus on the 5 following subjects:

  1. Definition of value proposition
  2. Construction of subscription offer
  3. Selection of paid contents
  4. Visibility of paid contents
  5. Evaluation of strategy

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Part 1 - Definition of value proposition

Value proposition is at the heart of the monetizing strategy of a publication. Why? Because, for a general audience, accessing information is not enough. If the value proposition of a publication is not clearly defined, then why would a reader be ready to engage and to subscribe to the publication’s content?

The topic of value proposition - the “why” - is often relegated to the background by firms in general and by publishers specifically. Most of the time, because it seems already well defined… when it is not. A good way to check that is to ask each colleague to define the value proposition of the firm in a single sentence. This will enable you to know quickly if everyone is aligned on the subject.

A clear value proposition makes a lot of things easier: from creating paid contents to defining a subscription offer. It will enable you to work on setting the publication apart from others. From a more internal perspective, a defined value proposition will allow the whole team to work in the same direction. The impact is difficult to quantify, but it is clearly an important one.

Part 2 - Construction of subscription offer

As seen above, the subscription offer must materialize a clear and understandable promise for the reader. In the case of a publication website, this promise will be showcased by product contents and notably premium contents. Differentiated contents - aligned with the value proposition - are therefore part of the subscription offer.

For the rest of the offer, the range of options is very wide and must be fully adapted to your identity and to what your readers are looking for. The worst mistake would be to do a benchmark and reproduce what other publishers do. Those publishers have neither the same brand nor the same audience and nor the same expectations of this audience.

Several questions can then enable you to identify elements to integrate in a subscription offer:

  • What’s the added value (other than content) that can be offered to subscribers and is of interest for them?
  • Is an access to some events going to be a real driver for subscribers?
  • Can meetings with different stakeholders of the publication industry interest subscribers?
  • Does accessing the “backstage” of writing articles - the publication’s premises for instance - make sense for subscribers?
  • Would your audience like to suggest new topics of articles?
  • ...

A good way to collect ideas on that topic is to discuss it directly with your engaged readers on the website AND with your print readers which may have a different point of view on the matter. Interviews with users can bring many answers to these questions.

Part 3 - Selection of paid contents

The first step, as discussed above, is to define the mission of your publication, your reason for being, your promise to your readers. Then, you can evaluate the position of your content regarding your DNA:

  • Very close to your DNA? → Paid content.
  • Necessary for a sustainable publication but not at the heart of your mission? → Free content.

The idea is then to test, learn and realign to eventually succeed.

In a general manner, contents, which will a priori be considered as premium, are:

  • Contents with a strong added value corresponding to the mission of the publication, for instance:
  • exclusive
  • articles precisely aimed at the publication’s members (kinship)
  • hyper specialized
  • ...
  • Long articles which have needed an advanced journalistic work:
  • reports
  • investigations
  • articles deciphering the news
  • rankings
  • infographics
  • ...

On the other hand, contents, which will a priori rather be considered as free, are:

  • Contents carrying a strong SEO potential: “evergreen” articles
  • News dispatch
  • Contents syndicated from partners:
  • Weather forecast
  • Videos
  • Exam results…
  • Slideshow
  • Very short contents (less than 1500 signs)
  • ‘Advertorials’ and sponsored articles

The choice of displaying a content as free or premium lies however more in its value rather than in the category it belongs to: an article about a very local minor news item that no other publication mentions has a higher added value (even if it’s a short article) than a report of a sports competition that every national newspaper will write about.

Part 4 - Visibility of paid contents

The question of visibility of paid contents is logically a central issue in readers’ subscription process. Of course, if the contents are visible but not qualitative and deprived of added value (cf value proposition), and if the user experience is marred, then it won’t be enough. All these elements are needed to maximize chances of conversion.

The following question can then be raised: why is the visibility of paid content important in the conversion process?

1 - First, it allows subscribers to understand why they subscribe and should keep doing so. This will impact the control of the stick rate, that is to say the ability of publishers to win their readers’ loyalty on the long-term.

2 - Because paid contents have an important value for your prospects, this will enable non-subscribed readers to visualize the reasons to subscribe.

3 - Finally, the more the reader is confronted with a paywall, the more they get used to seeing your message(s) and so to your value proposition, which sets out a clear reason to subscribe.

But why should the visibility of paid contents be increased on a publication website?

Different tests have to be implemented and visibility of paid contents must be gradually increased, because it is an essential element to help you turn readers into subscribers. At Poool, it is something we daily observe by working with publishers: there is a direct correlation between visibility of contents and conversion. For all that, visibility only will not be enough. All other criteria have to be taken into account (value proposition, content strategy, user experience…).

The example of Challenges

Poool has been working with the French weekly business magazine Challenges for two years now. When we started working with them, the visibility of their paid contents was 5%.

We decided then to implement personalized paywall journeys according to the reader’s profile. In a nutshell, the idea was:

  • To allow readers who are not very engaged to access paid content easily (free access, watching an ad…)
  • To block readers who are very engaged and ask them to subscribe (strict paywall)

After several weeks, we did not notice any positive result on the acquisition of subscribers.

The idea of Challenges was to ally a strategy of content with a marketing strategy. The aim was to increase visibility of paid contents from 5% to 30% in several months, all the while keeping this personalized strategy of access to contents.

The result after several months was unequivocal:

  • From several dozens of new subscribers each month, Challenges went to several hundreds of new subscribers each month...
  • ....without any impact on the number of pages viewed and the engagement of users...
  • ...all this increasing ad-generated revenues…
  • ...and without losing anything in terms of audience neither organic nor any other sources of traffic!

In this exemple, the dynamic paywall was only a way to implement Challenges’ strategy. Another interesting point: the visibility of paid contents from 5% to 30% did not have any impact on the number of pages viewed globally on the website. Why? Simply, because the readers who were not ready to pay were given an alternative to access content which engaged them less (for instance, watching a video advertising) and with the idea of making them discover the subscription offer of Challenges.

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How to increase visibility (and therefore traffic) of my paid offer

  1. Publish more paid contents
  2. AND/OR better the visibility of existing contents (which does not create any additional costs)

If you choose the second option, how do you proceed?

  • Highlighting paid articles on the home page, above the fold
  • Highlighting paid articles on recommended blocs within contents
  • Highlighting paid articles in the newsletters
  • Highlighting paid articles on social media
  • Inclusion of paid articles on footer recommendation widgets and sidebar like Outbrain and Taboola

And there are other opportunities to look into:

  • Creating highlight blocks specific to the paid offer
  • Creating a newsletter dedicated to premium contents
  • Creating pages or specialized groups on social media
  • Writing an an editorial manifesto defending your contents to send to your newsletter subscribers

Part 5 - Evaluation of strategy

Contents on a publication website enable you to reach different aims: audience, engagement, conversion and retention. All typologies of content will therefore be of importance even though some do not have a direct impact on subscription. Here are several good questions to raise when measuring the performance of your articles:

Audience

  • Which articles generate the most pages viewed?

Engagement

  • Which articles generate the biggest engagement rate?
  • Time spent
  • Number of articles read

Conversion

  • Which articles generate the biggest conversion rate?
  • click on the paywall
  • visit on the page entailing the subscription offers
  • unblocking
  • subscription
  • ...

Retention

  • Which articles generate the biggest stick rate?
  • Articles most read by subscribers?

→ For each of these aims, you should create a report to monitor their evolution. Ideally, you should even analyse these results at a precise level: key segments.

But be aware, these recommendations do not mean that the content you will produce should only be the type of content consumed by current subscribers or readers likely to turn into subscribers. If we stop producing content that attracts new readers, then this will have two consequences: an impact on traffic and ad-generated revenues in the short-term and the drain of readers potentially ready to subscribe in the long-term. You should therefore keep a balance and a coherence between these different types of contents. Defining and monitoring performance indicators will enable you to guarantee this balance but also, and above all, to understand step by step the role played by paid contents in the life cycle of our prospects.