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The internet, social media, smartphones, and 24-hour news cycles have transformed the publishing industry over the past few decades. The organizations that have thrived through the chaos have done so by staying true to the principles of quality journalism, and by cultivating a deep understanding of their audiences to create content that helps build long-lasting relationships.

Research shows that today’s audiences are willing to pay for quality content. However, the media-subscriber relationship goes beyond this transactional foundation. Subscribers are actually more likely to trust your content if they’re paying to read, watch, or listen to it-”and that’s a huge feather in any publisher’s cap. 

Understanding consumer behavior in the subscription economy is essential for every publisher with a combined subscription-advertising revenue model. This includes knowing how to construct your paywall so it works for both your business and your audience to drive subscription sales. In this article, we’ll explore the importance of paywalls, and several ways publishers can use them.

Why paywalls are mission-critical

Many media organizations struggle with business models based solely on advertising revenue derived from website page views. By implementing a paywall to “gate” specific content so users can only access the content by paying for it, you increase your ability to focus on producing valuable content instead of chasing ad revenue. This is a win-win for both publishers and audiences because quality content naturally leads to higher page views (and more loyal subscribers) in the long run.

The media industry is highly competitive, and just as you’ll find in any sector, some publishers compete on quality while others compete on price-”or lack thereof. “There will always be outlets offering free access to their news content,” according to Reuters. “Any company with a pay model must explain why readers should support its work.”

Therefore, while paywalls are important for today’s publishers from a revenue perspective, they must be backed by a solid strategy that puts the consumer first. Media outlets and audiences vary widely, and there are many options available to you when deciding on how to structure your paywall. Let’s dive into 8 paywall experiments to try this year.

8 different approaches to paywalls

Subscription models and paywalls have become increasingly sophisticated in recent years, according to the Digital Pay-Meter Playbook from Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center and the Lenfest Institute.

“Measures of market penetration, audience engagement, meter or paywall stops, conversion rates, and retention rates can be used to paint a more comprehensive picture of the health of a publication’s digital subscription business, and can help to determine key areas of focus for a particular publisher’s organization,” the report said.

With that in mind, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to structuring your paywall. Here, we’ve outlined 8 options for you to explore.

Metered access

This iterative approach is popular for several reasons, including the fact that it’s easy to test. For example, you may try giving readers access to 3 articles per month vs. 5 articles per month, then gating the rest behind a paywall to see which number of free articles is more effective in driving subscriptions.

There’s no right or wrong answer when it comes to the number of articles to offer for free. One of your titles may be a B2B economics publication, while another may be a B2C car publication. The key is to understand your unique audience base for each title and create offerings those individuals find valuable.

Topical access

You may choose to implement a paywall for premium content, but enable users to access other content for free. For example, some publishers prefer to keep all COVID-19 related news free because they believe it’s important for people to have access to that information. 

In the era of fake news, it’s crucial to ensure that not all reliable journalism is gated behind a paywall. Encourage collaboration among your team to decide which content should live behind your paywall and which should not.

Various access levels

You can structure your paywall by time and device type to leverage certain points in the day where engagement is high, so you can begin to build relationships with new users. For example, you could offer unlimited access via mobile devices from 8 a.m. to 9 a.m. during commuting hours, then gate your content behind a paywall for the rest of the day.

URL path

Your paywall can vary depending on whether a user has reached your website through Google, Facebook, your newsletter, or other means. For example, you could provide a higher level of metered access for new visitors for those who’ve found your content through an advertising campaign, since those individuals need to be able to access any content you’re promoting in your ads.

User journeys

Consumers love personalization, which is why it’s a smart move to create user journeys tailored to your audience’s specific level and methods of engagement to help drive subscriptions. For example, research shows that users who receive your newsletter are 5 to 10 times more likely to subscribe to a paywall, and those who follow you on social media are 4 to 6 times more likely to subscribe, according to Roisin O’Brien, Customer Success & Strategy Manager at Zephr

Developing these customized user journeys can also help you mitigate churn risk among existing subscribers by watching for dips in engagement and taking action to increase engagement once again.

Tailored access

We’re no longer in the early days of digital subscriptions, and print vs. digital aren’t the only two options you have to offer. A solid paywall strategy that helps increase subscriptions relies on listening to your audience and delivering what they want. For example, a subscriber may only want to pay for news on weekends, or the entertainment section. Proving this kind of tailored access is an excellent way to stand out from your competition.

Targeted, quality journalism

As a publisher, your content won’t always appeal to everyone, and that’s just fine. Your primary objective should be to define who you ant to reach with your content and then produce quality journalism for that audience. Don’t try to fill every gap in the market. Remember, people are willing to pay for content they trust and that resonates with them.

First-party data

Nowadays, data is a currency and users are aware they’re being tracked. Gathering data has benefits for both media organizations and their audiences because it enables publishers to better respond to consumer behavior and preferences. However, it’s crucial to adhere to data privacy laws and communicate your first-party data strategy to your customers. 

Optimize your paywall

Finding the right subscription software is essential to optimizing your paywall. Lineup’s Amplio software is the first complete recurring revenue platform built to help publishers succeed in the subscription economy. We can help you to find the right paywall for your business, you to build stronger customer relationships, create high-converting user journeys, and increase advertising revenue.

Afton Brazzoni

Afton helps B2B companies serve their audiences with captivating, refreshing, effective clarity through storytelling. She brings 12 years of experience in marketing and communications, with a background in journalism, to her mission to deliver clients excellent content that drives their businesses forward. Afton has extensive experience developing strategies and content for growth-oriented organizations such as technology companies, higher education institutions and the tourism industry, as well as for entrepreneurs.