Login is restricted to DCN Publisher Members. If you are a DCN Member and don't have an account, register here.

Digital Content Next


InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

Build paywalls, and people will dig holes

September 17, 2019 | By Jon Fletcher, Content Editor – Marfeel @Marfeel

People used to be loyal to a single publisher. They paid for the content then and there (or were longstanding subscribers). And they didn’t even notice stories from other publications. It’s frustrating that online content consumption hasn’t work in the same way. But the same system that brought about the democratization of online content also broke publisher loyalty.

Suddenly, consumers had access to numerous content platforms. The barriers to entry lowered and smaller, niche publications could reach a global audience, adding multiple views to the same angles. This meant people got used to judging by the story rather than by the publication.

Paywalls should work as a logical solution to monetizing online content. And paywalls do function as a way to pay for content. However, they don’t account for the way the majority of online users actually consume content. They can be an inflexible solution in an environment that changes daily.

That’s why publishers need to consider paywalls as one element of a wider monetization strategy.

Paywalls turn away 98% of users

The formula for consuming content used to be: Seek out a source of content you trust or enjoy—such as a newspaper. Now online content producers have to find, and fight for, audiences. Through media aggregation and search platforms, news competes with other versions of the same story for reader attention. Now users don’t have to choose just one publication and stick with it. Information is everywhere. This has led to to consumers having a distributed, fragmented web of content sources.

For hard paywalls to work as a primary monetization system, publishers must possess (or build) a formidable audience based upon a strong, trusted brand. Many readers will only pay for content they know they can’t get anywhere else. Major media brands have the resources to offer this. But even then, the many readers are going to look elsewhere for content, particularly if they hit a paywall and feel they can find good enough information for free.

Speaking at a publisher conference, Marfeel CEO, Xavi Beumala described the problem of scaling a paywall model. “Even in the US market of 330 million, the total amount of business you have for a subscription model is always capped. You can’t scale it ad infinitum.”

The generations that are loyal to a single media source are dying out.
Subscriptions may work for the New York Times. However, the New York Times is using the fuel of the reputation it took 100 years to build (not to mention a significant investment in its technology and delivery). Without new readers experiencing the quality of their output, some question whether this model continue to sustain the brand for another 100 years.

Other media groups, such as The Guardian, have bucked the trend with a voluntary subscription basis that doesn’t wall-in content. This model relies on readers wanting to support the business and see it continue to operate. Again, brand strength and reader trust and value are big factors here.

Netflix for news

Content aggregation platforms represent a further hurdle for publishers that want to paywall their content. Several big tech companies have announced plans to deliver news and entertainment from multiple sources in their own subscription platforms.

While publishers will be able to negotiate payment rates that allow their paywall-segregated content to appear in aggregated content platforms, these deals will always favor the major tech companies over the publisher. It’s not hard to imagine these companies also downgrading search results or newsfeed positions for any content that has a paywall—that they don’t operate. Facebook, Apple, and Google don’t want to direct users to content or a search query only to have that user bounce back from a hard paywall.

The arrival of these news platforms also offers further competition to the paywall model, one that has a real chance to further disrupt publisher loyalty. Consumers may hedge their bets, possibly choosing to pay more to see content from multiple sources than tethering themselves to a single subscription.

Easy to get into, hard to get out

Google’s latest Chrome update was an example of how the ecosystem is built around a handful of major technology providers, and small changes can cause major disruption.  The update in question prevented publishers from detecting if users are browsing in incognito mode. 

Intended or unintended, the consequence of closing this loophole meant that many publishers’ metered paywalls were no longer effective. When readers hit their article limit they can switch to incognito mode and instantly reset their meter of free articles. 

Publishers suddenly found that their paywall solution was ineffective, in one single stroke from Google.

Distributing monetization

A lack of resources to build technology means that some publishers bet all of their chips on a single strategy. And, for some publishers, paywalls represent a functional option with a guaranteed level of revenue. 

But paywalls can be a blunt and imprecise tool. They cut off the majority and work for a minority. With a paywall, you often close the doors to new readers and rely on a core of hyper-engaged users. These readers are effectively paying for the loss in traffic that the paywall creates. It also insulates content in a world where sharing and exposure are the oxygen of publications. 

Using different sources of technology, publishers are now able to deliver a layered monetization strategy that meets the needs of different readers, different content, and different stages of the engagement journey.  Technology that implements programmatic, direct, paywall, subscription, micropayments and more will empower readers to build tailored packages. Like GDPR, readers will be able to select their preferences based on their needs.

A small percentage of readers will want (and pay for) a dedicated, personalized, ad-free experience. For these readers, a hard paywall with a personalized experience is the perfect solution. A far larger subsection of the audience will accept advertising in return for content that is free at the point of purchase.

Broad multitudes within this grey-area will sometimes pay, sometimes won’t. They won’t accept recurring transactions or fees and will need the process to be frictionless. For the first time, mid-size publishers will be able to out-pace major media groups that are forced to develop bespoke solutions, banking on only the most profitable. 

More technology and monetization platforms are being democratized and made available to mid-sized publishers. With a sliding scale of monetization options, they will finally have the ability to reflect readers’ stage in the process, capture new traffic, and give readers options that will build a longer-lasting connection with their brand. 

Liked this article?

Subscribe to the InContext newsletter to get insights like this delivered to your inbox every week.