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Publishers: 4 strategies to optimise paywall conversion

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For publishers with paywalls, benchmarking can be useful to get a sense of where a paywall is performing strongly, and where improvements can be made. Although conversion rates and proportion of content paywalled will vary by sector and type of publisher, there are some general principles which can be shared across the industry in order to improve conversion rates.

This is the aim of membership and subscription suite Poool’s new Conversion Funnel Benchmark Report. Poool have compared a range of anonymised key engagement and conversion data points across their 150 publisher clients to enable benchmarking in a new report, which will be updated every quarter for publishers looking to improve their subscriber conversion rate.

Here are four findings from the first quarterly report to help publishers evaluate, improve and optimise their paywall conversion rates.

1: Break each step down

The most widely-used metric when talking about converting traffic to subscriptions is a basic conversion rate: what proportion of visitors to the site actually end up converting? This is fine as an overall measure of success. But to improve and optimise paywall conversion rates, it is better to break down the user journey into different steps, then work out how to improve each one.

Poool’s report recommends an alternative framework of four distinct metrics; the percentage of users exposed to the paywall, the percentage of users who actually see the paywall, the percentage who then click on it, and finally the percentage of those who convert.

Via Poool’s Conversion Funnel Benchmark Report

Breaking it down this way also helps publishers to focus on which areas matter most to them. The Financial Times, for example, has a full-page paywall visibility rate of 100%. Their focus will be on optimising the paywall itself to drive conversion, rather than allowing site visitors to sample content. 

French publisher AOC by contrast used this framework to identify the issue that their premium offering wasn’t necessarily being seen by as many site visitors. They integrated banners advertising their subscription offerings on high-traffic pages rather than just on premium articles, and subsequently were able to move more visitors down the conversion funnel. Increasing exposure to the paywall by 64% increased click-through rates by 329% in the first two weeks of implementation.

“By using this reader-focused methodology, many publishers have been able to better understand their audiences, pinpoint exactly where they’re seeing the biggest loss in traffic, and then take very targeted corrective action,” Poool’s consulting lead Anthony Ribeiro commented in the report,

2: Check the visibility of your premium content

For those without a hard paywall, site design is a tricky balance between showing readers enough to make them want to subscribe, but holding enough back that they are willing to pay. The ideal proportion of paid versus free content will vary by publisher. Nonetheless, there is unsurprisingly a correlation between traffic on premium content and the reader-to-subscriber conversion rate.

According to Poool’s benchmarks, the average publisher has around 66% of its traffic to premium content. Specialised media has the highest average visibility rate, closely followed by B2B and finance. More niche sectors are likely to have smaller but more engaged audiences with a higher propensity to subscribe. 

Via Poool’s Conversion Funnel Benchmark Report

For publishers looking to increase the number of site visitors who see premium content, the answer doesn’t necessarily lie in producing more premium content. Rather, attention should be paid to how visible existing premium content is. Are premium articles regularly promoted alongside open articles? Is premium content clearly tagged and visible on the site? Is subscriber-only content being suggested to registered users?

Portuguese publisher Público is one example cited. They mark premium content with a bright yellow tag, and aren’t shy about promoting these pieces high up on the homepage. They have an average of 44 articles out of every 100 on the homepage as subscriber-only, therefore exposing a greater number of people to the paywall.

“Many assume that increasing conversion rates should involve optimising the paywall and steps following it,” commented Madeleine White, Head of International at Poool. “But in fact, a great deal of traffic is lost even before you get the chance to show this paywall to your readers.”

“Even if a user isn’t yet ready to subscribe, the tagged, subscriber-only content, as well as any promotional banners or pop-ups will inform readers of this premium product, make them aware of the value that it provides, and give them a feeling that they’re ‘missing out’.”

3: Segment your audiences to understand behaviour

When testing paywall optimisations, sometimes a change itself can improve click-through rates. One publisher in Poool’s report saw CTRs (click-through rates) reignite every time they tweaked the design of their paywall – even if it was just changing the colour of the wall.

But different types of site visitors can have different responses to optimisation strategies. In one example, where audiences were segmented into volatiles, occasionals, regulars and fans, volatile users responded far better to a summer paywall design refresh than the other groups. 

Via Poool’s Conversion Funnel Benchmark Report

This is where dynamic paywalls are increasingly being employed by publishers to customise when and how readers see subscription options. Dynamic paywalls can adapt the design, colours and images, annual vs. monthly pricing, and even the wording depending on the content type, the source of traffic and reader location. 

Elle Magazine (France) uses a dynamic paywall to adapt messaging based on which newsletter a user came from. Readers of their sex and relationships newsletter are presented with a paywall inviting them to discover more testimonies and unpublished stories from other readers. By contrast, readers visiting from their fashion newsletter are invited to stay up to date with the latest fashion trends with a subscription. Some of the general benefits of a subscription are the same, but the ability to tailor specific perks to groups of readers is a simple but effective way to increase conversions.

4: Reduce friction at the point of conversion

Beautiful button designs and optimised visibility are all very well, but engaged readers will fall at the final step if the sign-up process is any more complicated than it needs to be. Once the other steps in the subscriber journey have been optimised, reducing friction should be a priority.

Many publishers choose to integrate things like offers, payments and forms into the paywall itself. Finance-focused publisher Alternatives Économiques integrated Stripe into their paywall so payment could be made directly without the reader ever having to leave the page. This led to a 40% increase in conversion rates on their site, taking advantage of impulsive decisions to subscribe whilst allowing the user to continue reading the article they were on before they met the paywall.

The mobile experience should also be carefully considered in order to improve the user journey on smaller screens. With more and more people willing to make payments from their phones, having a clear, simple process for mobile users is essential to maximise the chances of readers completing the journey.

Republished with kind permission of Media Voices, a weekly look at all the news and views from across the media world.