Practical tips on paywalls and digital subscriptions

Paywalls and digital subscriptions

How can publishers fine tune their online paywalls and digital subscriptions? More and more consumer and B2B publishers, whether they have print subs or operated a controlled circulation model, are adding metering and paywalls to their digital content.

What’s driving publishers to consider digital paywalls? A combination of factors. Rising print and paper costs, falling newsstand efficiency, preferences for digital content, growing international reach, or establishing corporate subscriptions.

Readers and visitors are becoming more accustomed to registration forms and subscriptions to access content, but publishers must learn a whole new approach to entice online audiences into digital subscriptions.

A group of consumer and B2B publishers shared their experiences at a virtual round table this week, comparing stop rates, conversion, meter settings and content insights. This was the consensus view:

1. Allow one free article for unregistered readers

Readers arriving via search, social media or a shared link expect to read their first article for free. Some publishers might allow a second article before the requirement to register appears. Branded or sponsored content may stay permanently outside the registration wall.

2. Expect 2-3% of visitors to register

Most readers are light users who may not see the need to register and are unlikely to subscribe. One publisher in the group observed that about 2-3% of their overall traffic registered in order to view more articles.

3. Experiment with number of articles before the paywall

We had a lively discussion about how many articles to allow registered readers to view before they hit a paywall. Most set it between 5 and 10 per month, although this is certainly an area for testing, and consumer and B2B audiences may behave differently.

4. Target about 10% stop rate

The stop rate is the proportion of online visitors who encounter a paywall – i.e. use up their allowance of “free but registered” articles. If no-one ever hits the paywall you will never get subscribers! Ten percent is a good benchmark for your stop rate.

5. Readers may hit the paywall several times before they convert

Some readers will hit the paywall and then just go away and wait till the meter is refreshed. Be prepared that they may hit the paywalls a few times before they convert.

6. Remind readers how many articles are left

A good approach is to have a banner on the page that reminds readers how many articles they have read and how many are left before they need to subscribe. Include an easy link to subscribe and get rid of the metering!

7. Track what content prompts conversion to subscription

Once a paywall is up and running, a couple of publishers have tracked what content finally pushed a registered reader into subscribing. Then you can prompt the editorial team to produce more of this “hero” content.

8. Set up a dashboard to monitor the conversion funnel

The conversion funnel can get quite complex, with registration rates, stop rates and subscription rates. One publisher created a dashboard using Google Data Studio to track it all, especially when testing the number of metered articles.

9. Test out different payment methods to reduce friction

Sometimes typing in a credit card number on a phone to buy a subscription can be off-putting. Making the payment journey as frictionless as possible should increase conversion. Experience from allied sectors such as arts and event ticketing is that offering Apple Pay or Google Pay improves transaction rates on phones, although of course you have to pay a commission.

10. Consider dynamic paywalls – vary offers by source, behaviour, or segment

Social media visitors may be allowed more articles before they hit a paywall, while email newsletter recipients could be presented with a paywall more quickly. In some B2B sectors, different segments could be identified via email and receive a softer or harder offer.

11. Balance allowing enough free content to build a reading habit with avoiding annoying paying customers

Metering is a balancing act – some were aware that allowing free customers to view too many articles might annoy subscribers. But light users need to experience enough content to build a habit and consider a purchase.

12. Anticipate sales team resistance

More than one publisher felt that readers were now more accepting of paywalls, but that internal sales teams were resistant, fearing that ad impressions might fall. The solution to this concern is part communication, and part starting with a loose meter, so that registered users can see more articles before being asked to pay. Plus, branded content can be kept out of the paywall altogether.

13. Micropayments won’t drive revenue but identify subs prospects

One publisher had experimented with a micropayment system. Revenues from single article sales were disappointing, but they did highlight engaged readers who were good subs prospects.

14. Upsell subscribers to premium packages or sell additional content

Several publishers have built premium subs packages with extra exclusive (digital) content or archive access. Some have created additional publications from archive content and offered these as upsells as subscribers were making the transaction, increasing the total revenue per subscriber.

15. Add in membership benefits to build loyalty

Certain audiences like a sense of joining a club or becoming a member. In specialist consumer markets, some readers like to feel part of a “tribe” and want to swap ideas with like-minded enthusiasts. In B2B, engagement in community is driven by opportunities to advance one’s career or access collective expertise, either through in person events or an online community.

As more publishers embark on the journey towards paywalls and digital subscriptions, there is great value in comparing stats on metering, stop rates and conversions.

This round table was set up for members of the Speciall Media Group, a community of 170 media leaders who share experiences and ask questions on a private forum on the Guild platform. We have more virtual round tables planned later this year. If you’d like to request to join the community this is the link. It’s free for now but invite only, just for media owners and publishers, no vendors or suppliers.

If you’d like to discuss how to develop your paywall or digital subscription offer – do get in touch for a chat over a real or virtual coffee.

About the author

Carolyn Morgan has bought, sold, launched and grown specialist media businesses across print, digital and live events.  A founder of the Specialist Media Show (sold in 2014) she now advises media businesses large and small on their digital strategy through her consultancy Speciall Media.

Read more about Carolyn

Find out more about the advice we provide for publishers

Read case studies of our projects

What our clients say