Intelligent Paywalls

What Are Intelligent Paywalls?

The latest trend in digital publishing involves using artificial intelligence technology to create intelligent paywalls that adapt based on reader behaviors and interests. Are you ready to give this strategy a try?

It’s hard to believe that nearly a decade has passed since publishers first started implementing paywalls on their websites. Originally, paywalls were created as a way to promote subscription sales and increase digital news revenue, after signs that ad rates would soon be shrinking.

Publishers believed that by preventing readers from accessing content on their websites for free, they would push those readers into becoming paying subscribers. The fault in that logic, however, was that visitors can’t see for themselves how great the content actually is behind paywalls. Without knowing what kind of quality content is hiding behind a paywall, website visitors aren’t effectively persuaded to subscribe. These challenges led digital publishers to explore different paywall strategies.

We’ve covered the latest paywall strategies extensively here at Web Publisher PRO. Porous paywalls, metered paywalls, hard paywalls, dynamic paywalls—we have seen publishers have great successes, and failures, with each of these strategies.

Now, a report from FIPP and Innovation Media Consulting, looks at an entirely new paywall strategy that could shape the next wave of digital media startups. So-called intelligent paywalls are being used by publishers who are interested in developing multiple revenue streams, and they have the potential to change online publishing as we know it.

What are intelligent paywalls?

Publishers with intelligent paywalls are relying on artificial intelligence (AI) to create paywalls that adapt to visitor behaviors. Intelligent paywalls can be setup to restrict access to content for certain website visitors, even while giving other visitors unrestricted access to the same articles or website sections.

Intelligent paywalls are really a response to the one-size-fits-all approach that digital publishers have been using, with mixed success. Intelligent paywalls are also called adaptive paywalls, hybrid paywalls, or flexible paywalls.

One of the best examples of a large news organization that’s utilizing intelligent paywalls is the Wall Street Journal. The publisher spent years refining its machine-learning algorithm to track visitor activity and adjust its paywall flexibility based on variables like visit frequency, depth of read, preferred devices, and preferred types of content.
In an article in The Drum, WSJ Analytics Manager John Wiley said these variables contribute to a “propensity score” that relates to a website visitor’s likelihood of subscribing. Certain website visitors get more free articles than others, usually within the topics they’re most likely to care about. The WSJ’s algorithm is capable of predicting when certain readers are most likely to convert, and its intelligent paywall is designed to capitalize on that information.

Other publishers use variables such as reading histories, website visit times, and number of email newsletter subscriptions to personalize their intelligent paywalls.

Intelligent paywalls take all of these variables into account in an instant, as they time their calls-to-action and set unique prices or discounts to incentivize users to take action at the precise moments they’re most likely to convert. Website visitors might also see unique messaging on the creatives they’re being shown as they hit the paywall each time.

Being able to understand which website visitors should be shown which marketing messages, and what the right combination of tactics is at any given time, is at the heart of data-driven audience acquisition, and it’s really what intelligent paywalls are all about.

Are intelligent paywalls hard to implement?

The answer to this question depends on the publisher that’s asking. Unlike traditional hard paywalls, which block out any visitors who haven’t input their subscription credentials, intelligent paywalls have to be developed using AI technology. That technology is expensive, especially for a publisher that needs customization. Because of that cost, it’s unlikely that intelligent paywalls will become mainstream among the smallest local publishers, at least in the immediate future.

What we’re more likely to see is intelligent paywalls taking off among larger digital news organizations and among the most tech-savvy publishers. Large media organizations are more likely to have the manpower necessary to implement intelligent paywalls, while tech-savvy publishers have the technical expertise necessary to design their own flexible paywalls using similar techniques.

Have you thought about implementing an intelligent paywall on your own website? If you’d like to learn more, reach out to our team at Web Publisher PRO for a one-on-one consultation.