Is it ever too soon for a digital publication to launch a paywall? Absolutely. If you’re having a hard time deciding when to start charging for access to your website, you’re not alone.
Anytime a new publication launches, the first priority should be developing strong, high-quality content. Without a solid content strategy in place, your publication is dead in the water. Readers need a reason to visit your website, and a steady stream of high-quality editorial content is the greatest reason there is.
We generally recommend that publishers develop their business strategies concurrently with their content or editorial strategies. Content strategy should shape business strategy, and vice versa. If your business strategy involves funding operations through some form of reader membership or subscriptions, then you will need to decide when to start selling subscriptions and when to launch a paywall.
The topic of reader paywalls has been covered extensively on Web Publisher PRO. With so many approaches to paywalls and memberships, it’s a good idea to have a solid understanding of the pros and cons of any strategy you choose. As we head further into 2021, the most popular paywall models appear to be the hard paywall and the metered paywall models. The hybrid model, which gives readers access to a certain number of free articles within a limited section of the website, is another model that is increasing in popularity.
The benefits of launching a subscription program are vast. These include:
- Immediate increase in monthly revenue
- Steady flow of income
- More loyal readers
Because every publication is unique, there is not one set trigger point that publishers can use to determine when it’s the right time to launch a paywall. With multiple kinds of paywalls to choose from, we can’t recommend a one-size-fits-all approach to publishers at this time.
Certainly, before you can launch a paywall you need to have a few things in place, such as:
- An audience that’s willing to pay for access to your website
- High-quality content, published on a regular basis
- A structurally sound website that’s optimized for both mobile and desktop
- Back-end technology to sell and manage reader subscriptions
Is the content on your website high-quality? Is the content on your website available elsewhere for free? Is fresh content on your website being published frequently, at regular intervals? Subscription models only work when the content is good enough that people will pay to read it. Low quality journalism doesn’t jive with the paywall model. That should be taken into consideration at the very beginning of your publication’s existence, as you begin to develop a content strategy.
What’s the best way to let readers know that you plan to launch a paywall? Telling your audience ahead of time goes a long way in generating goodwill. Expect some readers to be turned off or frustrated that their time of consuming high-quality content for free is coming to an end. Negative feedback is inevitable whenever you require people to pay for a product they had been receiving for free, but there are ways to mitigate the damage.
The email newsletter is the best place to notify existing readers of upcoming changes to your editorial or monetization strategies. Website pop-ups or overlays are a good idea, as well. Depending on your approach, you might even want to offer readers a discount in exchange for signing up early or paying for a one-time annual subscription.
Be prepared to answer questions from readers, like:
- Why are you putting up a paywall?
- Why don’t you just sell more ads?
- How did you come up with the price?
- Will there still be sponsored content or ads?
- Will I get a discount for donating to your website previously?
- How many devices can I read the site on if I subscribe?
- What will happen if enough people don’t sign up?
Data is your friend. As you develop your paywall strategy, use content analytics and website traffic trends to inform all editorial decision-making. What topics are your readers interested in? What articles are they consuming most frequently? Which sections of your website are getting the most traffic? This information is especially useful when launching a hybrid paywall, since you might consider keeping certain website sections open and putting other sections behind a paywall.
Over time, patterns will appear based on the most common subscription trigger events. For example, visitors might be more likely to subscribe after reading sports articles than after reading news articles. Maybe visitors who arrive via links in your email newsletter are more likely to subscribe than people who arrive via Google search. This could inform where you allocate your marketing budget, as you work to grow your subscription program moving forward.
To learn more about what it takes to manage a successful online subscription program, click here.