For content creators to survive and grow, you need multiple revenue streams. Diversifying your sources of income means charging readers for access to premium content. It’s time to stop giving everything away for free!
This is not to say all of your content must live behind a paywall. The challenge is to determine where to put the paywall. That is, the point at which payment is required in order to proceed.
Being too generous affects sales to your digital membership subscriptions. Giving too much away gratis undermines your paid membership’s value proposition.
On the other hand, being too strict with the paywall rules has a negative effect on your digital marketing and monetization strategies. You’ll need to continue to offer some content for free so you can drive traffic to your digital properties, interaction with your social media sites, and engagement with your email campaigns.
What Are Your Paywall Options?
If you take one thing away from this article it should be this: Make sure the rules about the location of your paywall are clearly communicated to and understood by your audience.
Some companies make the rules too hard for the consumer to understand. This frustrates the user. Non-paying customers get frustrated and leave before signing up. Paying customers can get confused about why they are paying when they might be able to get what they want for free.
While the Wall Street Journal does a lot of things right with their paid digital membership (I’m a loyal paying customer), clarifying paywall rules is one area they might improve on. Their paywall rules seem haphazard to the layperson. They are early adopters of the dynamic paywall method, and will allow different visitors various levels of access based on their demographics and reading habits. They use these factors to determine how likely they think they are to subscribe, and then gate content accordingly. For more information on their methodology, check out this article from NeimanLab.
On the other hand, there are several companies who do a good job making their rules explicitly clear or at least very easy to deduce.
This model allows readers to consume a certain amount of content before hitting the paywall.
For years, the New York Times has allowed readers to view five articles per month before requiring a credit card. There is a counter that keeps track of your consumption throughout the month. Although as their membership continues to expand, they announced last year they’d be experimenting with a dynamic paywall model in the coming months, just like the Wall Street Journal.
If a metered paywall is properly implemented, it provides the benefit of allowing your content to be indexed by Google, so you aren’t foregoing SEO benefits. Content behind the paywall may not be on Google’s radar screen, depending on how you implement it.
This paywall rule runs the risk of being “gamed.” Even though New York Times is cracking down on this, it is still possible to work around some of the rules and read more than five articles. Using this model also foregoes the opportunity to earn a conversion in a “moment of truth.” If someone urgently needs to read a piece of content on a certain subject, they’ll be desperate to do so at any cost. But if they’re able to read it for free, they might access that content and then never come back for more.
First Part of a Digital Series Free
Give your audience a taste, and they may come back for more.
DataCamp gives away their introductory course on data science for free, as well as the first lesson in the advanced courses. Most television channels will offer the first episode of a given series online for free, and then require that you log in with your cable subscriber information to access the rest of the season.
If you have content that flows in a series, this may be the best model for you. It allows you to establish trust. The consumer feels the risk has been reduced, because they’ve had the chance to “try before they buy.”
New content is free, but archives require a membership. Vice versa could also work.
One of the features of Vanity Fair‘s membership program is access to their newly created online archives.
This rule is simple for consumers to understand and for you to implement. For this model to work, your archive needs to contain “evergreen” content that retains its value as time passes.
The nature and/or format of the content dictates if it is free or paid.
For example, Subscription Insider puts news and features in front of the paywall. But how-to guides and case studies are part of a paid digital membership.
Ad-Supported Versus Ad-Free
There is a set of customers who will pay for an ad-free experience. This model seems to be working for the digital movie industry–think of premium subscriptions to Spotify or Pandora that reduce or remove ads.
This model might dovetail with some of the issues around mobile ad blocking. Some publishers won’t show you any content if you have ad blockers on. Perhaps there could be three tiers: You get nothing if you’re blocking ads, you get an ad-supported experience for free, or an ad-free experience for a subscription fee.
How Do You Decide Where the Paywall Goes?
There is no golden rule. You’ll need to determine the best model for your business based on the nature of your content and willingness of your audience to pay.
Here are a few steps you could take to make the right decision:
- Catalog your content and place it in logical groupings. Think about different ways to sort: by format (video, text-only, etc.), by content type (news, how-to, research, benchmarks, etc.), by length (long format, medium, short), by date, and/or by topic.
- Monitor your customer behavior now. How are they engaging with content? What articles are driving traffic? You might want to leave this category of content in front of the paywall. What content is driving the most engagement (e.g., time on site)? You may be best served by placing this content behind a paywall.
- Test a few different paywall options qualitatively with consumer surveys.
- Run experiments in the real world, such as A/B testing marketing campaigns.
- Once you settle on a general model, continue to test the specifics. For example, if you land on a metered paywall, test 5, 10, or 20 free articles and see which options leads to the most optimal balance between traffic, email signup, conversion, and retention.
About the Sterling Woods Group, LLC
The Sterling Woods Group’s mission is to help clients make sense of their data to build deeper relationships with their best customers, launch new products and membership programs, and execute smarter marketing strategies.
We use a hypothesis-driven, data supported methodology to discover your “spin”—a simple insight that no one else is paying attention to. Then, we help you assemble the right technologies, marketing plans, and resources to seize this opportunity.
About the Author
Rob Ristagno, Founder and CEO of the Sterling Woods Group, previously served as a senior executive at several digital media and e-commerce businesses, including as COO of America’s Test Kitchen. Throughout his career, his focus has been on embracing technology and analytics to spur strategic development and growth.
At the Sterling Woods Group, he and the team are passionate about helping clients understand their best customers through data, and developing products and membership programs that exceed expectations – and generate impressive revenues.
Committed to spreading this message, Rob is the author of A Member is Worth a Thousand Visitors and is a regular keynote speaker at conferences around the world. He has been featured on ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox, and Digiday.
He holds degrees from the Harvard Business School and Dartmouth College and has taught at both Harvard and Boston College.