Building a gate in the wall: 10 Insights on publisher paywalls

In the last year, a wide range of publishers have been experimenting with paid content, and the old image of an impenetrable barrier with unseen goodies on the far side, has been replaced by an enticing open gate with a glimpse of the content beyond – or even a few tasty morsels laid out for passers by to sample.

At the Paywalls Strategies conference organized by the Media Briefing, newspapers, b2b and consumer publishers shared their triumphs and disasters with pay walls, pay gateways, metered access and subscription options, building more of a roadmap for other content owners to follow.  Here are my top 10 insights from the day:

1. Create a pay gateway not a pay wall

Many publishers are adopting a metered approach, where readers can sample their content, either discovering it via search using first click free, or through a trial subscription.  The Economist charges for its core weekly content, but allows free access to 5 articles via the weekly Editors highlights, encourages social sharing, runs blogs, polls, comments and editor discussions for free.

2. Paid services are more complex than just content

In B2B markets, paid services have to offer more than just content.  Lloyds list offers subscribers infographics backed by deep data-sets, real-time email alerts, and ipad edition.  Its premium service, Lloyds List Intelligence, includes ownership analysis, credit reports, and a phone line to their analysts. Autosport Plus, the subscription option for keen motorsport fans, includes images, infographics and an ad-free environment as well as exclusive features.

3. Focus on fans not flybys

Enhanced analysis tools are revealing a split between passing trade and hard core readers.  Incisive discovered that on FX week, customers viewed 7 pages and spent 8 mins, while visitors viewed just 2 pages.  When Professional Pensions put up a paywall, only 25% of traffic was lost and just 15% of page views.  Autosport Plus costs £5.50 a month. Only 1% of web users subscribe, but they account for 11% of traffic. 15% of Autosport susbcribers upgraded to pay for a digital facsimile edition of the magazine.

4. The value is in the audience not (just) the content

Quality content attracts a targeted community that will spend on additional services. Advanstar have developed a subscription-based e-learning service for the worldwide readership of their chromatography publications. Pulse (recently acquired by Briefing Media) can charge pharma companies more for face to face access to a dozen influential GPs than a larger, generic audience.

5. Offer both subscriptions and micropayments

Publishers favour subscriptions for the guaranteed income, and more data on buyers.  But some people don’t want the commitment of a subscription, even if there is a financial advantage.  A Danish tabloid newspaper offered online subscriptions at 4€ a month, and single content purchases at 4€ to 20€ and saw a 2.5x growth in micropayments alongside a 3x growth in subscriptions. Autosport discovered that more people would pay 88p for a single article than 89p for a week’s subscription.

7.  Create multi-platform subs: web, mobile, print…

Consumers are using a wide range of devices during the day to access content.  Many publishers see a peak of iPad access in the early morning and late evening, with web usage highest in the morning, and smartphones during commutes.  So it is no surprise to see growth in multi-channel digital subscriptions.  Economist subscribers get access on iPad, web and print for one price.

7. Use analysis to develop product

Access to enhanced statistics on the behaviour of different categories of registered users and subscribers allows publishers to tailor content to specific audiences.  UBM’s built environment titles looked at conversion rates, discovering that investors and surveyors showed 7% conversions to paid, while architects were just 3-4%

8. Sell the true value of your audience to advertisers

As display ad yields continue to fall, publishers need to focus on sponsorship and integration packages.  Duncan Tickell advised publishers to offer good content, good tech and good design to ad clients.  Their Heinz/Made for Mums feeding channel and Top Gear microsite for Nissan both delivered quantifiable results for the clients and each earned the publisher a six-figure sum. UBM’s built environment titles have developed their own weekly audience measure aggregating email, digital and print plus tracking demographics and seniority.

9. Replace journalists with analysts

In B2B markets, news is often on the free part of the site, and premium content is built around analysis, statistics and insights.  This affects the composition of editorial teams.  Lloyds List now replace journalists who leave the team with analysts, and the growth of infographics in their subs package raises the requirement for good graphic designers.

10. B2B and B2C can learn from each other

Business and consumer publishers face different challenges.  Subscription packages for consumer markets can be boxed in by competitive offers and artificial anchors such as print cover price.  Business publishers can offer a range of different tiers and packages for different subgroups, and justify higher prices by creating value or limiting risk.  Yet consumer publishers can learn from their b2b peers by offering metered access or pay gateways and analyzing audience subgroups.  And as all business people are also consumers of digital content in their leisure time, habits they develop there will be carried into the workplace.

So overall, there are good grounds for optimism on the ability of publishers to charge for online content.  The black and white argument of free access vs paywall lockdown of a year ago has evolved into a far more subtle patchwork of free sample content open to search and social media, a trade of reader data for partial access, and a more tailored set of subscription options, and even one-off content sales.  More flexible pay gateways could even help publishers escape from the tyranny of low display CPMs by demonstrating the true value of their audiences to advertisers.

About the author: Carolyn Morgan works with niche media businesses on their digital publishing and marketing strategy, through consulting firm Penmaen Media. Carolyn regularly writes for media trade press and speaks at conferences on the challenges of digital publishing.  She also runs the Specialist Media Show, a conference, exhibition and workshop programme for niche publishers.  Carolyn moderates the Specialist Media Network on LinkedIn, a community of over 900 niche publishers who swap ideas and contacts. Request to join here.