Considering the continued fall in print and ad revenues, paired with the rise in content consumption online, it’s no surprise that paywalls are becoming increasingly employed by content producers online. And this isn’t just a trend amongst news publishers - e-learning platforms, video and music streaming sites, content marketplaces and even brands are reaping in the benefits of moving to a paywall and subscription strategy.
But what are paywalls? What are the different types of paywalls? How can they be used to benefit online publishers? And, most importantly, how can you use a paywall to increase conversions and revenue?
- What is a Paywall?
A paywall is employed by a content producer online to restrict access to their content.
In short, a paywall creates a value exchange between you and your audience. Specifically, a user is blocked by a paywall and required to pay a subscription fee in order to gain access to your content.
For example, the video streaming giant Netflix employs a paywall to gate their content, allowing only those who pay a subscription fee to watch films and series on their platform. Equally, the Financial Times has become well-known for their tough paywall model that, differently to the majority of news journalist websites, don’t allow users to read any part of an article without subscribing first.
Although fairly new in the content-producing world (the NYT only adopted a paywall strategy in 2011), users are now being faced with paywalls on a wide variety of media sites, with the COVID-19 pandemic causing this number to increase even further.
What's more, not only is the number of publishers adopting this strategy growing, but the amount of content being placed behind a wall by each media is also on the rise. Our Digital Media Review found that whilst only 1 in 6 articles were blocked by a wall in 2018, this went up to 1 in 3 by the start of 2020.
2. What are the different types of Paywalls?
Just as there isn’t one type of content-producer, there isn’t just one type of paywall. 4 high level models of paywall exist; soft/freemium, metered, hard and dynamic, although other forms are beginning to emerge and two models can be combined into a hybrid paywall.
What is a soft/freemium Paywall?
In this model, some content is free and accessible to all users whilst the rest is hidden behind a wall and only available to paying subscribers.
An example of this is the French publisher Le Monde. Around 37% of the articles produced are reserved for subscribers only (figure from 2018, according to digiday.com). Without subscription, a reader will be cut off after a few paragraphs and presented with the paywall.
‘The rest is reserved for subscribers’ - Le Monde’s paywall cuts you off with their paywall on premium content.
Premium content is given a yellow tag and placed next to free articles, highlighting the value in subscribing to readers.
What is a metered paywall?
With a metered paywall, all content needs to be paid for, but a non-subscriber will be able to access a limited amount within a certain period for free, e.g. 3 articles within a month. Publishers will generally tighten their article limit over time to encourage subscription.
The New York Times has a metered paywall, which arguably saved the newspaper from failure. Launched in 2011, it was one of the first of its kind and, with its success in monetizing online, led the way for other online publishers to ask readers to pay for content in the digital era. Readers without a New York Times subscription will only be able to read up to 5 free articles per month, a number which has significantly decreased from the original 20 in 2011.
They’ve additionally integrated a registration wall into the user journey towards subscription, asking users to register on their site in exchange for one article. This article from our subscription funnel series goes into more detail.
What is a hard paywall?
This is the toughest form of paywall where all content is reserved for subscribers only. A hard paywall is considered a risky wall to employ due to the frustration and exclusivity that it creates, however it's currently being used successfully by a handful of content producers, who for the most part have a monopoly in their market or a very niche topic focus.
The Financial Times is well-known for utilizing a hard paywall, doing so successfully for 18 years thanks to the unique content focus and specific target audience. Interestingly, however, FT relaxed its paywall during the coronavirus pandemic to capitalize from the surge of online users during lockdown. This allowed readers to sample its premium content that has always been known as too good to not be paid for, leading to FT reaching its end-of-year subscription goals within 3 months.
What is a dynamic paywall?
Unlike the rigid paywall systems that we’ve seen so far, a dynamic paywall segments your audience and allows a publisher to create different paywall journeys for each type of user. It is a highly data-driven paywall strategy that recognizes that there is no one-size-fits-all system for every individual user. Importantly, the audience can be segmented based on any variant chosen by the publisher, such as propensity to subscribe (user profile), device being used or type of content (context).
This paywall arguably gives you the greatest chance of converting the most readers as each individual can be presented with a paywall that is suited to their behavior and propensity to subscribe. For example, showing a volatile reader a hard paywall as soon as they enter your site will likely turn them away for good. If, however, you tempt them with a free article if they sign up to your newsletter, and another if they fill out a questionnaire, then they might be more inclined to subscribe as you’ve been able to show what content you have to offer.
For example, The Wall Street Journal's paywall divides visitors into 3 groups based on propensity to subscribe, presenting them with a paywall journey adapted to their grouping. This isn’t all however. The WSJ's dynamic system also allows their paywall to learn from its interactions with users, to the point that it is now over 90% accurate at predicting whether a visitor will subscribe or not.
La Croix International is another publisher that has integrated a dynamic paywall (Poool Access paywall) into their site, allowing them to achieve fast and promising results: not only did traffic on their website rocket after just a few months, but they improved their conversion rate and doubled the number of subscribers within a year.
Here, a volatile reader is offered a free article if they subscribe to one of the publishers’ newsletters.
Thanks to the journey-creation tools in Poool Access, La Croix has been able to create the optimal journey for each of their audience segments as well as personalize the paywall design to match their brand. Luckily for you, Poool has a free demo of their dynamic paywall which you can trial!
What other types of walls exist?
More varied wall systems are beginning to emerge to match the different goals of content-producers online. Register walls, for example, ask users to sign up/register to a company in order to access their content whereas cookie walls require someone to agree to cookie settings, or accept another option (pay, subscribe, register) on a website before they can access their content.
3. Why employ a Paywall?
The benefits of integrating a paywall are endless and it’s becoming increasingly necessary for content creators to do so, not only to monetize from what they produce but also to compete against others in the market.
1 - Diversify your revenue streams.
Monetization from a paywall is perhaps the most obvious and important benefit for a business. It can allow you to turn your most loyal consumers into business by developing premium offers than provide added value in exchange for the subscription cost. For content producers who already employ a subscription strategy, integrating a paywall into your site will significantly increase conversion rates and so help to monetize your content. What's more, contrary to what most people think, when integrated correctly, a paywall won't have any negative impact on page views, bounce rates and, importantly, ad-based revenue. Therefore, a paywall not only allows you to diversify and increase income but do so without damaging any existing revenue streams.
2 - Achieve multiple goals simultaneously.
As we’ve learnt, a paywall could be employed to not simply encourage subscription but also to increase engagement via newsletter sign-up, collect 1st party data through creating a free account and personalize a user's experience on your website thanks to audience segmentation. A paywall is therefore a tool that you can employ to achieve a wide variety of business goals aside from monetization.
3 - Learn about your audience and their behaviors
As users login and interact with your paywall, you’ll be able to collect first-party data, learning about how they behave and what makes them subscribe. With the end to cookies fast approaching, having a data-informed strategy that involves gathering data that you own, that's of a high quality and directly relevant to your audience is essential for thriving in the future internet world.
Aside from directly collecting data through registration or subscription, carrying out A/B tests on your paywall will allow you to gain valuable insights into what makes your audience convert, providing insights that can be user to inform decisions across your business.
4. Where do I start?
So now you know what a paywall is and the different types, but how do you begin to integrate one into your site and strategy?
First and foremost, there is no one-size-fits-all paywall. Every content creator is different, with its unique strategy, audience and content. But, keeping this in mind, we've come up with some starting points and questions to ask yourself at this stage of paywall integration.
- Which paywall best suits you? This mostly depends on: your goals, your monetization model (a hard paywall wouldn’t be recommended if you rely heavily on ad revenue) and your maturity as a business (again, hard model’s would be risky for a new content publisher as users don’t know you nor understand your value)
- What is your value proposition? How can you show this to your audience so as to make the value exchange work? Construct a subscription offer that is enticing to your audience and will encourage conversion. Take a look at this white paper on value proposition and subscription offers for more information.
- Ensure that your premium content is of a high quality. A user will only pay (and continue to do so) if they believe they are getting a good value exchange.
- How visible is your premium content? What percentage of your content is premium? In our Digital Media Review, we found that more and more content is being placed behind a paywall. This is with good reason as if you only block a small amount of content, users won’t see the value in subscribing as they already have access to the majority of your content.
- Who are your audience? How do they behave? How likely are they to subscribe?
Remember that the paywall is only the tip of the iceberg (a tool). You should begin by focussing on these other key aspects of your strategy - value proposition, quality of paid content, visibility of paid content, audience and brand as well as user experience (image from this white paper).
If you’ve established your strategy but still aren’t sure where to go next, we'd recommend launching a paywall and A/B testing it solely on your 'fans' (your most loyal and frequent users). This approach will allow you to see if your audience are willing to pay for your content without taking too big a risk. It's particularly recommended for publishers with an ad-based model as implementing your wall gradually will allow you to keep an eye on adveritising revenues and ensure that they aren't negatively impacted.
At Poool, we always start with you and your goals, with our flexible solutions acting as the tools that will help you achieve these goals. Poool Access, our dynamic paywall, allows you to segment your audience, configure journeys, A/B test and analyze results, making changes with ease without a tech team in sight!
Interested in seeing our solutions for yourself and learning about how we can help you achieve your goals? Try our free demo now!
5. Best practices
To end this article, we thought we’d throw in a few of our top tips for ensuring you get the most out of a paywall. Of course, as mentioned, keep in mind that your paywall needs to be optimal for you and your strategies, not anyone else's.
- Try to find a paywall solution that allows for easy testing and analysis of user behavior. A paywall can tell you a lot about your readers aside from simply helping you to monetize. The more you know about your users’ behavior, the more you will be able to optimize every part of your site and strategy. So measure KPIs, A/B test, analyze these tests and adapt accordingly to ensure continuous optimization of your strategy.
- Make everything easy for the user. We all know that the more steps needed to do something, the less inclined we are to do it. If you make the subscription process long and require a user to fill out a huge form, they are more likely to give up halfway and not complete the process. You can even consider integrating parts of the subscription process into the paywall itself so as to reduce the number of steps and effort needed. For example, add an email form, the subscription offers or even payment into the wall.
- Think about this insight #5 from our Digital Media Review: The pressure created by a paywall has an impact on both the conversion rate and on the frustration held by readers. This suggests that a balance needs to be found between the two. Design your paywall so that you put pressure on a user to subscribe, but be careful not to tip it over the edge to the point where they become frustrated and leave the site. But how? Measure KPIs, work on paywall visibility rate, optimize paywall branding/UX, improve paywall content (text, etc) and the value proposition as well as allow readers to explore your content and offers.
For more adapted advice and to hear about how Poool can provide the tools to launch a paywall and subscription strategy and make it a success, book a meeting and free demo with the team!