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50 ways to make media pay: Paywalls

This is an excerpt from our free-to-download report, 50 Ways To Make Media Pay

Online paywalls are a primary means for publishers to encourage audiences to take out digital subscriptions. Upon hitting the paywall, readers will find themselves unable to access further content unless either they become subscribers, or wait for an extended period of time for the paywall to reset. 

The past 12-18 months saw a number of publishers navigating a paywall tightrope; balancing the need to offer potentially life-saving public health information with the need to grow reader revenues, especially in the face of a dramatic advertising downturn. 

Many news outlets have historically dropped paywalls (or elements of them) for emergencies, breaking news stories or major events. In keeping with this, multiple publishers did the same thing with COVID-related content, including outlets with historically firm paywalls, like the Financial Times. It wasn’t a move that everyone agreed with, and as the crisis continued, some publishers – like McClatchy in the U.S. – decided to reinstate their full paywalls

Image via the Financial Times

At the same time, as the most recent Digital News Report notes, “the last year has also seen more quality journalism go behind paywalls… El País in Spain, El Tiempo in Colombia, and News 24 in South Africa are amongst those to have started their paywall journeys in the midst of the pandemic.”

Alongside this, we’ve consistently seen outlets reducing the amount of non-paywalled content audiences can access. In late 2017, the New York Times decided to reduce the number of free articles available to “most” non-subscribers each month from 10 to five. Prior to that, in 2012, it cut the number of monthly free articles from 20 to 10. Jump ahead to 2021, and the Gray Lady is moving a number (18) of their newsletters behind their paywall.  

We can expect other publishers to follow suit – as paywalls are tightened and more content increasingly becomes subscriber-only.

Image: Email to the author, August 2021

Here’s a rundown of the most common types of paywalls:

1. Hard paywalls

As seen at the Financial Times or Wall Street Journal, these sites typically keep all of their content behind a paywall, meaning you have to be a subscriber to access it.

That said, Chartbeat observes how “hard paywalls are now rare to find.” One reason for this is that “success with a hard paywall may be an uphill climb, as the majority of prospective subscribers tend to bounce offsite when encountering an inflexible gate.”

The Times (of London) lost 90% of its online readership when it introduced such a paywall a decade ago, suggesting publishers deploying type of paywall need to be in it for the long haul. 

More conventionally, publishers deploying this type of paywall tend to focus on a particular niche. “Can you guess what The Economist, The Wall Street Journal, and Financial Times have in common?” Chartbeat asks. 

2. Metered paywalls

This type of paywall allows audiences to consume a certain amount of free content before they have to subscribe. In recent years, multiple publishers have reduced the amount of material available to readers before they hit a content cap. 

Evidence suggests there is a good reason for this. A 2019 white paper from Harvard’s Shorenstein Center and the Lenfest Institute concluded “most publishers are too generous” and argued that “stop rates” should be lower if organisations want to maximise efforts to convert readers into paying subscribers. 

Their research found that “a majority of publishers with metered models set their meter limits at 5 articles per month or lower.”  Examples of sites who have adopted this approach include Slate, Medium and Bloomberg. 

Image:  Meter limits (2018) and the trends over time, based on 500 news organizations with digital subscription or membership models between 2011 and 2018, via the Shorenstein Center and Lenfest Institute

3. Hybrid (aka “Freemium”) paywalls

The start of the COVID crisis saw many publishers adopting this model, with coronavirus content often free and outside of the paywall, while other sections sat behind metered (or hard) paywalls. 

However, some outlets are electing to take this blended approach across a range of verticals. USA Today decided in July 2021 to move premium content – such as exclusive investigations, visual explainers, “thought-provoking takes on the news” and immersive storytelling – behind a paywall, with other content continuing to be freely available. 

“This is a big change,” they wrote, “our digital news has always been free. But USA TODAY was founded on boldness. Your subscription is an investment in quality journalism that’s worth paying for, journalism that strengthens our communities and our nation.”

A 2019 factsheet from the Reuters Institute identified the prevalence of this model in Europe, with Le Monde (France), BILD (Germany), and the Independent (UK) being just some of the outlets adopting this approach at that time. 

4. Section specific paywalls

These efforts allow users to access standalone verticals. Alongside offering a digital subscription enabling access to the whole site, the Telegraph (UK) also offers separate packages for sports and puzzles

Image: Costs for the Telegraph’s sports-only subscription package (accessed 22 August 2021), via The Telegraph

The New York Times is another newspaper that has successfully harnessed this approach across some non-news products. For example, NYT Cooking costs $5.00 every four weeks, or $40 a year. Separately, for the same price, they also offer a “games subscription” which includes The Times’ Crossword (a product that used to be sold as a standalone subscription). 

5. Gated paywalls 

Not every paywall requires a paid subscription to access content. 

A number of providers have experimented with other tactics, whereby users need to undertake a specific action – such as whitelisting the site or turning off ad blockers, taking a short survey (e.g. Google Consumer Surveys ), creating a user account or providing their email address – if they want to open the gate to access certain content.

These moves are driven by the value of capturing key consumer data, such as email addresses and topics that users are interested in, insights that can then be used to target consumers accordingly. 

Outlets pursuing this approach at present include The New Yorker and Wired.

Image: Example of a pop-up box from Wired, requesting more information before the reader can consume this story for free.

6. Geo-location paywalls

This model means you hit the paywall at different points depending on your IP-address. 

One benefit of this approach, as used by some newspapers, is that this paywall model can enable local audiences – a more appealing group for local advertisers – to access more content for free. In contrast, those outside a given IP-range, hit the paywall sooner.

For other media, such as the BBC’s catch-up TV service, iPlayer, entire products are only available to users with specific IP addresses (in this case, inside the UK). 

You may also find that certain types of content (e.g. sport or music) are restricted, depending on your geographic location, typically due to rights reasons. This includes numerous U.S. originated titles, which are not GDPR ( a regulation in EU law on data protection and privacy in the European Union and the European Economic Area) compliant.

Image: Screenshots from the author’s phone while attempting to access the website for USA Today and The Washington Post from Europe, July 2021

7. Dynamic paywalls

Has AI brought an end to the metered paywall?” asked Piano CEO Trevor Kaufman in 2019. Kaufman’s question was prompted by efforts that enable publishers to set different paywalls depending on “a huge host of variables, whether that be geography, content consumption, visit behaviour, subject matter, device, or a wide array of other metrics.”

Put another way, different users will encounter paywalls at different times, based on a range of different metrics, which may include the type of content you’ve landed on, your location, device type and browsing history. These indicators are being used to predict a users’ likelihood of subscribing.  New York Media and Neue Zürcher Zeitung (NZZ, Switzerland) are some of the outlets that have used this paywall model. 

“Today may be the death of the meter,” Kaufamn wrote, explaining how this system works, “but it’s the beginning of a new age of smarter, more satisfying automation.”

8. Multi-dimensional paywalls

All of these different approaches can be combined to include elements of these models. 

For example, a hybrid-dynamic paywall – as used by SME (Dennik SME) in Slovakia – may keep some content behind a paywall, while at the same time also locking audiences out once they hit a certain amount of free content. 

Image: illustration of a hybrid-dynamic paywall, via Deep.BI

The rationale for this blended approach, as the platform provider Admiral explains, is based on a realisation that “visitors are not homogenous, even for a highly niche content site.” 

“Some are okay with viewing ads, but want more control over the type and frequency. Others are happy to share a social login in exchange for an ad-lite experience.”  

Put simply, “the majority of visitors simply aren’t ready to “get married” with a paid digital subscription in a publisher’s first ask,” Admiral notes. “Instead, multi-dimensional metering helps publishers and visitors get to know each other, become friends, and date in the courtship leading up to subscription.”

Excerpted from our free-to-download report, 50 Ways To Make Media Pay