Across all content producers and providers, from digital press to e-learning, VOD and audio streaming sites, subscription-based models are on the rise and consumers are increasingly prepared to pay. Successful companies like Netflix, The New York Times and Spotify are leading the way in digital subscriptions to the point that paying for content is slowly becoming normalized. This means moving to a subscription strategy and monetizing your content has never been easier.
Not only is it more profitable and reliable than other models (such as ad-based) but you can also collect first-party data to inform your strategy, improve the user experience, invest in valuable content as well as sell and upsell products or services.
A subscription strategy therefore has the dual advantage of being customer-centric whilst fueling the growth of your business - your audience pays for content, meaning you get a stable monthly revenue stream plus first-party data. Both of these can then be put to use in producing high quality and valuable content in the future, improving the user experience as well as scaling your business more quickly and easily than ever before.
So, a subscription strategy is clearly advantageous. But where do you start? How can you launch a paywall and digital subscription strategy?
This white paper seeks to answer these questions, providing you with a step-by-step guide to help you launch and succeed in a paywall and subscription strategy.
How to launch a paywall and subscription strategy
In order to launch a paywall and subscription strategy, we can imagine 2 stages that a user will go through, leading them to subscription.
Stage 1 - Engagement strategy
This is where you’re turning unknown visitors to your site into engaged users - users who consent to cookies, are signed up to your newsletter and have created a free account.
Stage 2 - Conversion strategy
This is the conversion funnel, where users are blocked by a paywall and (because they’re already engaged thanks to path 1) are led towards paying for a subscription.
The idea here is that the first path prepares your users for the paywall. You engage them and ensure that your content fulfils a need of some form so that, when you do block them with a paywall, they convert rather than leave your site. It’s therefore highly valuable to your business if you optimize the first path prior to employing a subscription strategy (and obviously continue to improve it in the future). This two-part strategy will ensure that you not only launch successfully but also manage to convert your users into paying subscribers.
Stage 1 - Engagement strategy
This is an important place to start. Before employing a subscription strategy, you may be analyzing data such as traffic on your site. However, even if you have a lot of traffic, this doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll have a large subscription base after employing a paywall to block these users. The key is that these users need to be engaged. They need to see value in your content, have a need fulfilled and be persuaded that it’s worth paying to access your website. User engagement is therefore highly correlated with a publishers ability to generate revenue.
In the audience funnel, you can see that engagement comes prior to conversion, so it’s only logical that you should work on your engagement strategy before employing a paywall.
So, what can be done to optimize engagement?
- Create value
- Employ a registration wall
- Collect compliant cookie consent or propose an alternative
- Other engagement techniques
- Create value
Paywalls create a value exchange: your audience pays and, in return, you provide them with access to content on your website. Therefore, in order for this to be a success you should define your value proposition and produce quality content that’s placed at the heart of your business.
What is a value proposition?
A value proposition is a simple statement that gives audiences a reason to subscribe to your website. It should highlight the key benefits, unique selling points and show how you fulfill a need for your users. To help do this, you can use the Value Proposition Canvas below, explained in more detail in our 'How to define your value proposition' article.
Every content producer is different, so value will vary across businesses as well as among audiences. However, you can find your value proposition by looking at the content provided on your website as this is what your audience will be paying for.
Here, we can see the value proposition of 4 successful content producers, Netflix, Deezer, The Times and Audible, each providing a clear idea of what their content will provide for the user if they subscribe.
In order to discover which content brings the most value to your audience, you should look at KPIs surrounding acquisition, engagement, conversion and retention.
- Acquisition: What content generates the most (new) traffic?
- Engagement: What content are your users most engaged in? This could be measured via interactions or time spent on the page. You can also look at which articles lead to a visitor returning to your site and frequency of visit. For example, our sister company, Underlines, produced this table to highlight how users who visit your site more frequently (and so are more engaged) have a higher conversion rate. You can therefore analyze what content is consumed in these visits and what makes users return to your site on a regular basis.
- Conversion: What content leads users to subscribe? I.e. where are your users finally persuaded of the value in subscribing? What blocked content successfully leads to conversion?
- Retention: Which articles are most read by subscribers? Where do they spend their time on your site?
This data will give you an idea of where users see value in your content, at every stage of the funnel, so that you can invest in the right content that will engage and then convert your users.
2. Employ a registration wall
At the moment, the traffic on your site is anonymous. You may well be creating engaging and valuable content but it’s difficult to target specific users or understand their behavior if you can’t track a single individual on every visit to your site and across devices. However, this is easily solved by asking your audience to create a free account in order to access content. This is called a registration wall.
It acts in the exact same way as a paywall by blocking content but only requires that they register as a member for free rather than pay for subscription. The benefits of this tool are endless (you can find out more in this article) but the main value for you is in the first-party data collection (see more here). When your users login, their interactions can be tracked and you can gain an understanding of their behavior in order to inform your value proposition and business strategies.
What’s more, their experience, and the value that you provide, can be adapted to their profile. You can recommend content, allow them to save content within their account or resume content where they left off as well as personalize messaging and communications.
The New York Times, for example, employs a registration wall before a paywall in order to collect data, personalize the user experience and ultimately learn about their users. Find out more in this dedicated article.
Overall, with a registration wall, the unknown user can be turned into a lead who can be nurtured with a personalized experience to increase engagement and ultimately guide them towards subscription.
3. Collect compliant cookie consent or propose an alternative
What's more, asking for a user's permission provides the foundation of a relationship between you and your audience that's built on trust and being open about cookies and tracking. Ultimately, this will help to develop a user's loyalty with your brand as they feel that their data privacy is valued whilst at the same time you are able to gather information to inform your strategies and monetize from targeted advertising.
However, not all visitors will want to select accept on the cookie consent banner, something that is becoming increasingly common. In this instance, you can choose to employ a cookie wall that proposes a cookie-free alternative for the user such as subscribing or paying a one-time fee.
For example, Pure Médias ask visitors to choose between accessing the site for free with cookies and tracking or paying €1 for a cookie-free experience. This means that the publisher can collect compliant consent and monetize simultaneously by replacing lost ad-revenue with a one-off fee paid by the user.
To see more examples of cookie wall alternatives, take a look at this article from our blog. We also have a cookie wall alternative product in partnership with Didomi who provide consent management platforms! Find out more in this article about the Poool X Didomi partnership.
4. Other engagement techniques
There is of course more than simply registering your audience as users that can increase engagement. Encouraging users to sign up to your newsletter, for example, can prove hugely advantageous for increasing engagement, converting leads and strengthening brand loyalty. In particular, daily bulletins or other recurring emails can become a part of a user’s habits, which is hugely valuable for you as your content fulfils a need for the user. This will therefore make them highly more likely to subscribe in the future and remain loyal to your brand.
You can also utilize the first-party data collected through a registration wall to personalize email content for your users. This helps to maintain engagement as you target the user’s interest and only send them content that they will find valuable. What’s more, once you understand the user’s profile, you can sell (and upsell) subscription offers via email that directly suit their needs in order to maximize conversions.
Engagement can also be increased through interactive content on your site, such as discussion boards or features that allow users to save content for later. For instance, a website that provides recipes and cooking content could allow registered users to save content to different folders (breakfast, lunch, etc) in order to access them more easily in the future. This type of feature facilitates engagement and encourages users to interact more frequently with your content (which, as we saw, increases the chances of conversion).
Stage 2 - Conversion strategy
So, you now have engaged users who are being provided with valuable content that fulfils a need of some sort. This means that, when blocked by a paywall, they’re highly more likely to subscribe. We can now look at the conversion funnel and how best to utilize each stage to lead a user onto the next (and eventually turn them into a subscriber).
- Content is blocked by a paywall
- Subscription offers are presented
- An account is created
- Payment is made
- Subscription is confirmed and maybe an onboarding stage
- Access to content is granted
Each step should be considered as an independent part of a machine. If one step doesn’t work, the machine will fail and you won’t arrive at converting users into subscribers. Equally, however, if every part is polished and optimized for purpose, you’ll end up with a machine that works smoothly, leading your user from step to step with ease, resulting in conversion and a growing subscriber base.
Note that not every content producer will employ each of these stages. You could combine two steps into one, miss out a stage altogether or add extra steps such as personalization options (like Spotify who asks subscribers to select some of their favorite artists). Every business is different, with unique content and audiences, so the user journey to subscription won’t look the same for everyone.
- Content is blocked by a paywall
A paywall is employed by content producers as a tool to put their subscription strategy into action. The paywall blocks content and requires a user to pay to get past - i.e. they can’t access content until they subscribe.
There are various types of paywalls that you could employ depending on your strategy and content, each with their own questions to ask yourself before launching.
Which paywall strategy is best for your business?
Freemium: Content is divided into free vs premium. Free is available to all audiences whilst premium content is reserved for subscribers-only. This is a great way to give users an idea of the value in subscribing whilst allowing them to discover your free content and be persuaded to pay for premium.
- Which content will be free and how does this content help prove your value?
- Which content will be premium and what added value does this content offer?
- What percentage of content will be free vs premium? (Our Digital Media Review revealed that content producers are placing increasingly more content into the premium section and so paywalls are more frequently being presented with a paywall)
- How will you show users that the premium content is reserved for subscribers?
Metered: Users will have access to a limited amount of content for free within a given time period. For example, you could offer access to 3 articles per month before blocking the user with a paywall.
- How much content will you offer in what time period?
- How will you ensure users are aware of the limits?
Hard: User’s can’t access any content without subscribing. This is usually reserved for content producers who are either dominant in their field (e.g. The Financial Times), provide highly developed/quality content (such as E-learning platforms) or where the previous two options aren’t really possible (Netflix falls into this category).
- How will you show users the value of your content without showing the content itself?
- When will the paywall present itself? (On the landing page? When they try to access the content?)
Dynamic: The strategy is different for each user depending on which ‘user segment’ they belong to. The segment can be based on any variable of your choice. For example, you could group users based on propensity to subscribe and present fans with a hard paywall whilst first-time visitors and volatiles get a metered paywall.
- How will you segment your audience? E.g. geographically, by content-type, device used
- Which segments will get what paywall experience?
- How do these decisions help you to reach your business objectives?
It may feel like a big decision to choose which paywall strategy to employ. However, we always recommend launching first and then iterating later with tests, analysis and optimizations. We’ll be publishing a follow-on article soon which provides KPIs and best practices to optimize every stage in the subscription journey, including testing to find the best paywall to employ.
Integrating the paywall into your site:
Unless you’re as big a business as The New York Times, you likely won't want to develop your own paywall technology as this can be very costly, time consuming and may not result in the ideal solution. Instead, there are plenty of companies who create these technologies for content producers, providing you with the tools needed to launch and run your subscription strategy.
So, what should you be looking for in a paywall solution?
- Ease of set-up: can it be easily integrated into your platform, CRM, app, etc?
- Ease of use: will marketing teams be able to take control after launch in order to drive your strategy without tech support?
- Flexibility: is it adaptable to your business, content and audience?
- Type of paywall: what paywall models are available?
- Scalability: will you be able to develop your wall in the future as you grow a subscriber base?
- Security: is it easily bypassed?
- Design: can you configure the paywall to fit into your branding?
Overall, you need a tool that is easy to use, adaptable to match your business strategies and allows for modifications so that you can not only launch the paywall but optimize it for growing subscriptions.
Poool’s Dynamic Wall solution provides exactly that. Our paywall is easily integrated into your platform and entirely customizable to match your strategies, content and audience. We give the power back to marketing teams with a Dashboard control center to manage, test, analyze and optimize your paywall strategy without the need for tech intervention at every turn.
Get in touch and we’ll book you in for a free demo with our team so you can try the solution out for yourself!
2. Subscription offers and pricing
In order to attract the most number of subscribers and appeal to a variety of users, you should provide a range of value-based pricing options. For example, you could choose to tailor one offer to a certain target market within your audience, such as students or families, whilst also offering basic and premium/gold packages. 2 to 4 subscription offers is the average among content producers, with 3 being the most common as it allows you to provide a range of options without making the user’s decision-making process too difficult.
In terms of the cost itself, you should try to find a balance between pricing for growth and pricing for retention. The offers have to encourage users to subscribe for the long-term whilst also being a high enough cost to fund and scale your business.
After launching, you can carry out tests to see if any alterations to your offers lead to higher conversion rates. You could also consider employing a dynamic model where each user will be presented with the offer that’s most suited to their profile meaning conversions are maximized.
The offer page:
What are some best practices for a successful subscription offer page?
Highlight the best offer: on most subscription pages, there is often one offer that is forefronted in order to push the user to the most valuable offer for the publisher as well as facilitate decision making. For example Rosetta Stone highlights one off as the ‘Best value’ and shows the value in each offer through the order (cheapest on the left) and colors (black, bronze and gold).
Present your offers and calls to action clearly: a user-friendly design and clear layout ensures decision-making is facilitated. The CTA should be bold and suggest a sense of urgency - phrases like ‘Subscribe now’ or ‘Don’t wait’ are commonly seen on buttons here.
Here, The Washington Post choses to use brighter colors for the paid offers and separates the free option on the left in order to background it compared with the others. They’ve cleverly used wording to simultaneously plead for a user’s support (‘We rely on readers like you’) whilst also creating urgency with the call-to-actions to persuade them to click-through to the next step (‘Subscribe now').
- Directly compare offers and highlight the value of each for subscribers: putting offers side-by-side, each with their own list of value-points and cost, will allow users to see which best suits their needs and help them to make a more informed decision. Netflix goes even further by adding benefits of all offers at the top and then comparing differences in the table below. They chose features that users are likely to value, including cost, video quality and where we can watch, as well as highlighting the ‘Premium’ offer in a brighter color. Interestingly, they only mention the number of screens for watching Netflix simultaneously in small font at the bottom.
- Offer trials and promotions: providing free trials or promotions on offers for a limited amount of time can catch a user’s interest and provide proof of concept. They’ll be able to discover your value without committing to the full price. According to a study by the American Press Institute, 45% of subscribers finally subscribed because of a promotion or free trial, which was triggered just at the right time to convince the user to convert.
The Financial Times employs this strategy with a 4 week trial for €1. Note how this is a trial of their full subscription offer (i.e. the most expensive one) so as to provide a user with the best experience possible from day one.
3. Account creation
This is the form filling out stage, typically involving email collection and password creation at a minimum. Some content producers split this stage up, for example Disney+ who collects emails first, allowing them to send a reminder or promotional email to users who abandoned subscription. The key things to think about are:
- What information will you ask of your users? Remember, ask too much and you turn a reader away, but too little and you miss out on data collection. The solution is to launch with a standard form, test alternatives and adapt based on results
- How will you help facilitate this process? Maybe you could add the option of registering with an existing social account (Google, Facebook, etc)? Or you could combine this stage with payment?
- Reassure and support your users (at every stage) by highlighting the benefits of subscription, showing how far through the process they are, providing specialized support, etc.
The Times, for example, has a bar at the top of the page showing our progress through the funnel, reassures us with figures about the number of subscribers and the ‘bill’ on the right as well as providing a live chat service and phone lines dedicated to helping users subscribe.
This is a fairly important step for obvious reasons. Payment is usually where your audience makes the final decision about whether they want to commit to subscription. Therefore, you should continue to reassure them, re-emphasize the value for them in subscribing (because they want to get their money’s worth) and help to build trust in paying for your content.
- Provide multiple payment methods to give users a choice as well as utilize the trust that they might have in Paypal, Apple Pay or equivalent
- Reassure them by highlighting the billing information - what they’re paying for, when will they be billed and for how much - and reminding them that they can cancel anytime
- Like above, don’t ask for too much information or make the process more difficult than is needed as it might turn users away
Deezer’s payment page provides us with 5 options which, when selected, drop down to show the form. On the right, we can see the value in subscribing and we’re reminded a few times of the subscription cost and when we’ll be charged (under the title and when inputting our card details). We’re reassured by phrases such as ‘No commitments. You can cancel at any time.’ and by the security notices as well as by the options of using Paypal or Paysafecard.
5. Confirmation and onboarding:
This seems like the easy bit - you’ve got the payment and your user is now subscribed. However, it shouldn’t be forgotten that retaining them as a paying subscriber starts from the moment they’ve finished the process, i.e. here. This is your chance to make a good first impression by welcoming them. You can even add onboarding steps such as by showing them how to use your site, asking them questions to personalize content or allowing them to configure their account settings straight away.
Spotify asks us to select at least 3 artists that we like, allowing them to personalize content to our taste from the moment we start using their platform.
Whilst The New York Times allows us to sign up to some of their newsletters after having created an account. This is a clever technique to increase engagement as well as create habits that make the publisher’s content an important part of a user's day. Ultimately, this increases a customer’s lifetime value and retains them as a subscriber in the long run.
Note that onboarding may not fit with your business or content. It’s not relevant for everyone but can be very valuable when used correctly.
Alternatively, you can just welcome your new subscriber via email, a simple action that can go a long way.
“Statistics say over 74% of consumers expect a welcome email when they subscribe.... [and] welcome emails are proven to engage. Research shows people who read at least one welcome message from a brand later read more than 40% of the messages they received from that brand during the following 180 days. There’s just something about taking that first step to get this new relationship off to a good start…” - Maropost
Think about this welcome email as part of the groundwork for building a strong and lasting relationship with the subscriber. At a minimum, you should confirm their payment and reassure the user of their actions - make it clear how much they’ve paid, when they’ll be billed and highlight the value in the content that they now have access to.
For example, The Financial Times presents this confirmation page that’s laid out like a bill, detailing the user’s subscription offer and payment as well as adding links to customer support if they have any issues. This is hugely reassuring and a great start to someone’s experience as a subscriber.
If you’re interested in seeing the onboarding scenarios of 11 other publishers, take a look at Underlines’ series to get an idea of how successful businesses welcome their new subscribers.
6. Back to content
One important thing to note is that the user likely subscribed in order to access content, sometimes a specific article, video or podcast when they were blocked by your paywall. So, now that they’ve completed the process, the least you can do is send them back to where they started.
Quartz gives new subscribers the choice between returning to where they were blocked or exploring the rest of their site.
Overall, you should work on optimizing every step in the conversion process - each stage could potentially turn a user away from subscribing. You should aim to make the journey as simple and effortless as possible for your audience - minimal number of steps, clicks, scrolls and forms to fill out.
These steps will set you up for launching your paywall and subscription strategy. But what’s next? How do you make this strategy a success and convert your audience into subscribers?
The answer: launch and then iterate. Without seeing your subscription funnel in action and measuring KPIs to learn about the performance of each step, you won’t have any idea of what’s working and what isn’t. You can then use this understanding to test alternatives for points that seem to be underperforming in order to optimize them and improve conversion rates.