5 Things Publishers Should Do Before Erecting a Paywall
This is the year, the pundits tell us, when digital publishing will pivot to paywalls. Good luck with that.
Getting people to pay for online content is already hard enough. With more publishers in the game, it will become even harder. How many digital subscriptions do you think people will pay for?
Tread carefully, or you may become like the newspaper Newsday, which spent $4 million redesigning its site to support a paywall and then in the first three months signed up only 35 subscribers. To avoid that kind of disaster, here are five paths to pursue before putting all your content behind a paywall:
1. Prepare for fewer page views:
It amazes me to hear about publishers that are surprised to see traffic drop after erecting a paywall. The publishing consultancy Mequoda says a consumer web site is lucky if it gets just 1% of its visitors to pay for a subscription.
Even if you have a metered paywall (which usually means a limited number of page views per month for non-subscribers), some frequent visitors will become less frequent. Newsletter readers will be less inclined to click, for fear they’ll use up their five free page views before a really juicy story comes along. People who get intrigued by a particular article will no longer be able to dig into a lot of related items before bumping up against the paywall.
2. Start thinking like a niche publisher:
To thrive with a paywall, you’ll need to put special focus on that 1% who pony up for a subscription. Today they are free-newsletter subscribers and frequent visitors; tomorrow they will be people looking to see if you’re really giving them gotta-have somethings they can’t find on the free web. Consumer publishers experience an average churn rate of 30% for digital subscriptions, so you can’t take your paid subscribers for granted.
Take a look at the content that is most popular (time spent, not page views) with your most frequent users to get a picture of what your likely paid subscribers will want. You may need to shift your focus from “virality” to providing depth and uniqueness.
3. Create a premium product:
Country Living is trying to enjoy the best of both the paid and free worlds by keeping its site free but creating the Country Living Back Porch Club for its super-fans. Membership includes a print subscription, access to searchable back issues of both the U.S. and UK editions, a digital photo library, and exclusive features.
Bridgetower Media's regional construction-industry titles offer a premium subscription that includes access to an online Project Center, which provides detailed information on upcoming construction projects in the region and how to bid on them.
By thinking beyond just “publishing” and focusing on what your readers want and need, you may also find ways to charge for premium offerings without walling off your web site.
4. Consider B2B options:
Just because you’re a consumer publisher doesn’t mean you can’t make money in the B2B world.
U.S. News & World Report’s free college rankings are intended to help students pick a college. But it also packages its extensive data set on colleges and sells it to college officials, providing them the ability to create detailed comparisons to their peer institutions, track trends, and download extensive data sets.
Investor’s Business Daily recently created a Financial Advisor Briefing, a free portion of its web site focused on the needs of financial advisors rather than the publisher’s primary audience of retail investors. Many consumer publishers have a similar B2B component of their audience. For example, titles for boating enthusiasts are also of interest to boat retailers and marina operators. And car dealers and car manufacturers are likely to keep close tabs on sites that appeal to car buyers.
That B2B element may seem like a small part of your audience, not offering enough scale to be worth pursuing. But consider what Andy Kowl recently wrote for Publishing Executive: “Most B2B direct-sales pricing I see is in the $35-$135 CPM range, sometimes more for those selling time-based sponsorship programs instead of CPM.”
With ad rates like that, a B2B offering might bring in the additional revenue you need without the risks inherent in charging for access to content that is now free.
5. Enhance your newsletter offerings:
If you go the paywall route, chances are most of your paid subscriptions will come from your free newsletter subscribers. They are your site’s biggest fans and most frequent visitors. And because you have their email addresses, it’s easy to market to them.
To keep them engaged and loyal, consider giving them something more than just a summary of your best recent articles. Perks can include membership in an online community, coupons, advance looks at certain articles, a list of last month’s most popular articles, premium content, downloadable data – the list goes on. If you publish a ranking or “best of” list, consider giving your newsletter subscribers access to the data or reviews that went into creating the list.
Besides bringing in more newsletter subscribers, such bonus offerings enable you to test what sort of premium content works with your audience. That could be valuable information if you decide to move forward with a paywall.