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Given Google Chrome’s “incognito” update, it may be time to rethink your paywall strategy

September 3, 2019 | By David Gosen, CCO—Cxense @cxense

Google’s launch of version 76 of Chrome fixed a loophole that previously allowed publishers and other site owners to detect readers who were browsing in incognito mode. Aside from this loophole having serious privacy implications, a consequence of closing it meant that many publishers suddenly found their paywalls unlocked. WNIP estimates that as many as 33% of paywalls could have become unlocked due to the update.

Undoubtedly, paywalls are an important revenue model for many publishers and site owners. And given that Chrome has a market share of 64%, the impact of this update is widespread because it makes it easier to bypass paywalls by simply opening a page in incognito mode.

The talk of paywalls – and their relative strengths and weaknesses – makes this a good time to give some thought to your paywall strategy. Here are some different types of paywalls and how they may or may not be affected by Chrome’s latest update:

1. Hard paywalls (e.g. Financial Times)

The name says it all in the case of hard paywalls. Users cannot read any content (at least not in full) without subscribing and will have their pathway immediately blocked. The restrictive nature of hard paywalls may limit the number of potential subscribers, particularly as the approach isn’t tailored to specific audiences and behaviors.

Publishers that implement hard paywalls rely on a high amount of loyal regular users, which means they are probably more likely to specialize in specific fields. For example, this model can work for trade magazines and resources because they have more of a niche, loyal audience.

However, there are shortfalls that come with the hard paywall. For example, readers without a keen interest in the product will typically slip away quickly after first seeing the paywall message. And they are unlikely to return.

2. Freemium paywalls (e.g. Der Spiegel)

With a freemium paywall, a publisher lets readers have access to specific content for free. Here, publishers select premium content that is placed behind the paywall, while other content is freely available. Sometimes a publisher will select some of their biggest stories and features and free them up to non-subscribers, hoping this will then entice them to hit the subscribe button.

Take for example Der Spiegel, which offers different packages for both digital and print subscriptions. These are often tailored to different devices, like mobile and tablet. Some subscription plans can also provide users with additional bonuses like ebooks, tickets to thematic events, and more. This type of investment in engagement has translated into strong brand loyalty for German audiences.

3. Metered paywalls (e.g. The Economist)

Metered paywalls work in a similar way to freemium paywalls and there are a lot of freemium/ metered hybrid walls out there. A typical metered paywall gives readers access to a fixed number of free articles during a specified time period. If they want to read more, they have to subscribe. The issue with this model is that readers sometimes get accustomed to the free content and convince themselves that becoming subscribers isn’t worth it, as they already get enough for free.

Sometimes these publishers — such as The New York Times, The Economist, and Wired — require a registration to read the free content as a middle stage in the customer journey in an effort to convert these casual readers into paid subscribers. Registered readers become known users. Therefore, it becomes much easier for publishers to keep them engaged and target them with tailored offers. This is currently developing into an industry standard and is in line with a trend where the logged-in status will become much more common. Again: good for publishers.

Metered paywalls are those most impacted by Chrome’s update. Some readers have long used incognito mode to dodge metered paywalls. As the publisher can’t track incognito users, the site assumes that the reader is a new visitor and resets the meter to zero.

One of the most limiting things about these three more traditional types of paywall, and something they all share in common, is that each paywall behaves the same way regardless of who interacts with the site. They also put the content first rather than the user, placing the burden of generating subscriptions on the content alone, which in turn ignores the huge boosts in subscription growth that data-driven, real-time personalisation can offer.

4. Dynamic paywalls (e.g. The Wall Street Journal)

A dynamic paywall works by understanding reader behavior in real time and tailoring the online experience based on their needs. Essentially, it is designed to reach audience members who display behaviour that could suggest a liking for a publisher and a likelihood of subscribing.

This means the paywall block might appear faster for readers who spend a lot of time interacting with content in order to try to encourage them to register and eventually subscribe. If a reader only visits a publisher occasionally, they might get access to more free content in order to gradually build an affinity which could lead to them eventually signing up. Readers will also be served tailored free content based on their unique interests. Basically, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach and this is what makes a dynamic paywalls stand out from the pack.

The thinking is that this data-focused strategy should find the people most likely to subscribe and give publishers flexibility to target consumers in different ways. A dynamic paywall can optimize your audience and traffic while maximising your revenue potential, with publishers such as The New York Times and Wall Street Journal crediting dynamic paywalls for driving substantial subscriptions growth.

Additionally, a dynamic paywall applies machine learning to raw data to provide publishers with in-depth insight about each individual reader and provide them with a personalized experience that is generated in real time as they browse the site. A dynamic paywall will also often have a propensity model that can categorize readers automatically according to their likelihood to subscribe.

Sure, some publishers will choose to maintain their conventional (or, some might say, old fashioned) paywalls. This may be because they don’t have the technology to execute any other way.

However, forward looking publishers understand the need to find a new business model that drives long lasting engagement from being more dynamic. So, in light of this Chrome news, publishers should look at the change as an opportunity to re-evaluate their current paywall model. It might be time to rethink the paywall strategy as one based on personalization to drive sustainable long term customer relationships.

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