3 Tips for Evaluating Paywall Solutions
Editor's Note: Last week Publishing Executive released the research report on The Top Technologies Publishers Will Buy in 2018. To follow up we’ll be highlighting some of technologies that made the top ten list. Subscription & Paywall solutions came out as the 5th most popular technology publishers will buy in 2018 -- a tech category not even in the top ten last year. The overall Top Technologies research shows that publishers are eager to bring audiences back to their own properties, nurture them, and offer paid subscription products in order to wean off – at least in part – the advertising-centric model. In this post, Rob Keenan explores some of the key considerations to make when evaluating subscription platforms.
The move to paid subscription models has been the talk of the media industry for the past few years. And in 2018 we’ve seen more and more media brands actively evaluating or rolling out paid digital content models.
Over the past few months, I’ve worked with a number of media companies on the evaluation and rollout of new paywall structures. In doing so, it became clear that there are some key technical considerations you need to keep in mind when selecting the right paywall architecture. Here’s a breakdown of some of the key elements to consider during the evaluation process.
Tech Tip 1: Understand What You Can and Cannot Control
Probably one of the biggest areas of difference between paywall vendors is in the level of control they provide a user to set up, create, change, and monitor paywall campaigns.
In reviewing a host of vendors, there seems to be two prevalent approaches in the market. On one hand, you have vendors that provide full access to their paywall capabilities. These vendors let you develop campaigns, segment audiences, control metering settings, and more. On the other, there are a set of vendors that require changes to run through their team to be implemented.
There are pros and cons to both approaches from an execution standpoint. In tools where the user has control, it’s easier and quicker to make changes. But there is also an onus on the media company to manage all campaigns, which can be challenging for time-strapped teams.
For situations where the paywall vendor sets up campaigns, there is a clear benefit to gaining access to a resource that fully understands the capabilities of the paywall solution. But this comes with the tradeoff of time to implementation and agility to make changes.
What’s the right solution? The answer to this most likely depends on the type of marketing approach you want to take with your paid subscription business. If you’re looking to continually segment audiences, roll multiple offers out at once, or adjust quickly, then finding a solution with more control is the best option. On the contrary, if you have a team that needs to set up a simple metering approach and is strapped for time, then a closed solution is a better option.
Tech Tip 2: Think About the API Work Needed
One of the things that has amazed me the most in the paywall evaluation process is how easily the concept of developing and implementing APIs is thrown around. While API development is not as complex as it once was, you cannot diminish the amount of work needed to make APIs come to life.
In terms of the paywall, API development comes up in a few ways and it’s important for publishers to consider where the API work is needed and what impact that will have in the overall development and rollout of a paywall on your digital brand.
Here are three areas where API connections will arise in the paywall process:
1. Paywall-Database Integration – While in some scenarios, media brands can find a vendor that provides an integrated paywall/subscriber database, the reality is that in most cases you’ll be looking at solutions that require you to combine a paywall from one vendor with the subscriber database from another. As a result, this is one area where API work will likely be needed.
2. Integration with Marketing Automation and CDPs – Marketing automation tools and customer data platforms (CDPs) are a popular way to segment and target audience segments. They can also be a critical tool in segmenting offers for audience members through the paywall. But for this to happen, you’ll need to build API connections between these tools and the paywall.
3. Financial System Integration – Another key API development point lies in the transfer of financial data from the paywall to your financial system. If you have a paywall vendor managing financial transactions and tracking paid subscription revenue, it will be critical for you to have an API link between the paywall or subscriber database and your financial system.
As with any development requiring API work, make sure you understand if the vendor has done this type of integration in the past. Additionally, make sure you look for vendors that have published APIs because this will ultimately speed the API development process.
Finally, make sure you leave the time needed for API development and testing. No matter how often it’s been done, issues always arise during the development process. So, account for that upfront in your schedule so you don’t fall behind.
Tech Tip 3: Smart Testing and Machine Learning
Should I provide three free articles or 10 before a gate appears? Should I use metering or present a hard paywall to subscribers? Is it better to encourage users to pay monthly or annually? These are just a few of the many questions you will have as you begin to rollout a paid subscription business for your site.
Having a system that can run different A/B tests is critical to answer these questions. It’s also important to implement a paywall solution that either offers or provides a path to “smartwall” capabilities, which use machine learning to create offers dynamically based on the individual. Using these two approaches you can try different scenarios for different audiences and ultimately find the approach or approaches that work best for your audience base.
A Final Note on Operational Flow
One final note that I’d provide to companies evaluating paywalls: Implementing a paywall will change the way you deal with your existing audience. It will also change the way you tackle prospecting of new audience members for your brand.
Therefore, when setting up a gateway, make sure you fully think about the impact the gateway will have on your operations. Understand how the renewal process will change. Look for effects on prospecting. Determine how this paywall will tie into your circulation efforts. The more you consider the operational impacts, the more smoothly the rollout of your paid subscription model will go.
Related story: Why Publishers Struggle with Subscriptions
Rob Keenan is the President of Keenan Media, LLC, a consultancy firm providing digital, content, marketing, and audience support to the media sector. Rob has worked in the BtoB media sector for 20 years, most recently at the VP of Online Media for Edgell Communications. You can contact Rob at firstname.lastname@example.org.You can also follow him on twitter @robkeenan11 or connect with him on LinkedIn.