Publishers Are Missing the Point: Private Browsing Isn’t a Roadblock, It’s a Road Map
The publishing industry was up in arms over the summer when Google officially closed the loophole in its Chrome browser that allows website owners to detect whether a visitor has enabled Incognito mode to view their site. The complaint? It effectively undermined publishers’ efforts to prevent readers from circumventing their paywalls as they could no longer ask a reader to disable the setting before allowing them to access content.
Those same complaints resurfaced in September, following Apple’s latest update to its Safari browser. Just like Google, Apple is now preventing sites from detecting when visitors have private browsing enabled. And it’s reasonable to assume that other popular browsers like Opera and Firefox will follow suit in due course.
On the one hand, the publishing industry’s concerns are understandable – with ad revenues declining and subscriptions plateauing, publishers are putting increased efforts into growing reader-generated revenue. Users being able to circumvent a paywall will naturally impact that goal.
On the other hand, those same publishers are missing the point. Apple and Google are following through on a commitment to improving data privacy, which is currently top of mind for consumers. They’re not out to punish publishers. Rather than lament the demise of what was admittedly a useful loophole on web browsers, I’d argue that publishers should instead learn from those big tech platforms and apply a truly user-centric model to audience engagement.
Apple is Listening to Users and Reacting Accordingly
Over the years, Apple has built a reputation as a company that focuses on the user, whether that means offering technology that is hyper-intuitive, developing operating systems that work seamlessly across devices, or building products that consistently have the “it” factor. Firms like Samsung may try to replicate this approach, but they don’t always get it right first time – Apple nails it right from the start. It’s one of the main reasons Apple’s technology is so sought after, and that’s a direct result of the company both listening to what matters to users and also anticipating their needs.
Apple knows – just as Google does – that right now users are focused on data privacy. Ever since GDPR was introduced, and following the Cambridge Analytica scandal, we as a public are incredibly conscious about how much of our personal information is available to websites – particularly if it’s out there when we don’t want it to be. It’s little wonder, therefore, that the use of VPNs and anonymous or private browsers, which don’t share our data, are prevalent.
While consumers used to be focused more on convenience than anything else, now they want to feel that they’re being heard by the industry. Thus, Apple is evolving to meet that need: users are concerned about data privacy, so it offers an effective privacy mode for its browser.
Paywalls Aren’t a Catch-all Solution
Evolving with the market is second nature to a company like Apple, accustomed as it is to having to launch the latest and greatest technology every sales cycle, but it still doesn’t come naturally to the publishing industry. Consequently, publishers face the real danger of resisting – rather than embracing – the need to evolve, possibly until the opportunity has already passed them by.
In the face of private browsers, publishers aren’t thinking outside the box, but are instead looking at tactics that attempt to maintain the status quo. That’s why we’re hearing more about using registration paywalls as a mean to overcome the challenge private browsing creates. The problem is, they’re a decidedly double-edged sword.
Let’s not even consider whether readers will just decide to get the same content elsewhere, rather than provide personal information. Instead, consider the scenario where a publication requires a valid user email address in order to register to view content. On the one hand it’s quick, easy, and not too obtrusive; but if that publisher is tempted to misuse the information to increase their subscription numbers, by constantly trying to upsell their readers with different offers, then there’s going to be a huge backlash. Yes, people having voluntarily provided their email information, but they’ve only done so because they had no other choice in this case – they didn’t agree to be upsold to. As a result, they’re going to start off with almost zero tolerance, and publishers are likely to lose more than they win.
Publishers Should Follow Apple’s Example
Instead, I believe that publishers need to take a leaf from the big tech companies’ playbook because, far from causing trouble, Apple and Google are actually showing them how to treat users and how to engage with them. And the lesson is very simple – listen to what’s actually important to your audience and build from there.
Far from seeing the era of private browsing as yet another challenge to a beleaguered industry, publishers should instead consider this an opportunity to explore alternative reader monetization options that are more effective and user-centric. Yes, they need to ask their users for more direct revenue, but they need to do it on their readers’ terms. That means allowing users truly frictionless access to content, rather than holding them hostage with paywalls or registration pages, and offering models that accurately reflect the user’s consumption behavior and preferences. It also means that publishers should stop looking at – and trying to mirror – what other publications are doing, and instead choose a path that best suits them and their specific audiences.
Every publisher’s goal will be different. Some are looking for incremental revenues, others are prioritizing retaining users; some are willing to experiment (without cannibalizing their existing model), while others just want to sell subscriptions. In each case the approach will be different, and the advantage of implementing low-friction models is that you have incredible flexibility to customize your approach. For some, charging for an ad-free viewing experience will be the best way to monetize new readers, others will choose to sell premium articles a-la-carte, and others still will offer multi-tiered levels of payment depending on the age or type of content.
There is no catch-all solution. Instead publishers need this combination of different models and approaches precisely in order to address how their audience wants to consume content. But whatever approach they choose, publishers need to listen to their readers and understand what is important to them, just as Apple is listening to its users and recognizing that data privacy is top of mind. Publishers need to offer readers the content they value, on the terms that are acceptable to them.
Cosmin Ene is the founder and CEO of LaterPay, a payments and technology company with offices in the US and Germany. Under Cosmin’s leadership, LaterPay has become the monetization standard for local publishers in Germany with over 200 clients, and has expanded to the US market.