The rise of the paywall has been well documented. While most digital publishers understand the value in restricting content to promote their subscription programs, there is still debate within the publishing community about which paywall strategy works best.
With advertising rates on the decline, digital publishers have largely turned to subscription programs to generate revenue and keep their publications afloat.
Unfortunately, what most publishers found as they implemented their subscription programs is that readers—even loyal readers—will not pay to subscribe to a publication without some sort of impetus. Publishers that were giving away content on their websites for free have discovered that cutting off the stream of available content is one of the fastest ways to boost subscription rates.
But what happens when you cut off all the content? Sure, loyal readers who know what they are missing might be encouraged to subscribe. First-time readers, on the other hand, are actually less likely to subscribe when a publisher restricts all free access to articles.
Finding a happy medium here has been harder than publishers anticipated, which is why there is still so much debate within the community about which paywall strategy is best.
Defining the Paywall Strategies
The most restrictive paywall strategy for digital publishers is the hard paywall. In a publication with a hard paywall, non-subscribers are restricted from accessing any content without first subscribing or paying on a per-article basis.
Pros: Hard paywalls tend to be the most difficult to get around, which is a feat in today’s digital environment. Loyal readers are most likely to subscribe to a publication with a hard paywall, since they won’t be able to access any content—even five or 10 articles per month—without first signing up for a subscription.
Cons: The biggest downside of the hard paywall strategy is that non-subscribers can’t see what great content they are missing out on. Publishers can’t “hook” new readers with their great reporting if those readers can’t access that reporting. Hard paywalls can also lead to a sharp decrease in page views, which is a problem for publishers who rely on advertising revenue of any kind.
With a metered paywall, website visitors can access a certain number of articles per month for free before they are cut off from access. The only way to read more articles past that point is to pay for a subscription. The New York Times is one of the most well-known publications to adopt this approach.
Pros: Unlike hard paywalls, metered paywalls encourage new readers to subscribe. With a metered paywall, casual readers get hooked on the publication’s top quality content, and then once they see the value, their access is revoked and they’re required to pay for more.
Cons: The metered paywall strategy is ripe for fraud. Whether it’s through the use of extensions, private browsing apps, or other widgets, readers who want to find a way around metered paywalls can surely do so.
The dynamic paywall is a newer approach, pioneered by digital-first publications. Whereas a hard paywall restricts all non-subscribers, and a metered paywall places the same limitations on all non-subscribers, dynamic paywalls are designed to lure in readers who exhibit specific behaviors that suggest they are likely to subscribe to the publication. For example, when New York Magazine launched its dynamic paywall strategy last year, the company setup its paywall to appear more quickly for readers who spend lots of time consuming news across all of the company’s websites.
Pros: The dynamic paywall strategy is solely focused on data. Publishers are relying on website analytics and tracking data to pinpoint the readers most likely to subscribe. This strategy also lets the publisher soften or strengthen the paywall depending on advertising commitments. If the publication is running an important display advertising campaign one week, then the publisher might loosen up the paywall to allow enough readers in to drive scale.
Cons: Dynamic paywalls are sometimes considered to be too opaque. Although the idea is to optimize audiences and traffic, whether those goals are ever realized can be difficult for publishers to track.
Have you tried these paywall strategies at your publication? We’ve love to hear which paywall strategy you think works best for digital publishers today.