Managing the Pros and Cons of Newspaper Paywalls

Global Internet access to free information makes it difficult for newspaper paywall strategies to stick. They were a great idea, and they do actually work.

Problem is, people who were born into Generation X and everyone who is younger had spent most or all of their lives with a very different Internet experience from the one that newspapers wanted to impose. It’s the imposition, not necessarily the newspaper product, that needs a remedy.

Legacy media giants headed into the paywall sphere with a need for revenue and rather grand ideas about its success. Subscribers had paid for newspapers practically since the dawn of time. So surely, a paywall would just become the new barrier between readers and the content they wanted. Unfortunately, a lot of paywalls fell flat. Why would anyone pay for what is available at no cost?

Paywalls are, indeed, a barrier between readers and content. But they’re also a barrier between publishers and revenue. How do the successful ones do it? By fitting the paywall to the target audience and offering something that they just can’t live without.

A Newspaper Paywall Can Easily Backfire

The scramble for digital relevance happened almost overnight. But all of that new exposure left newspapers far and wide with a brand new problem: revenue. One of the quickest responses was the paywall, especially since digital advertising was (and is) such a moving target. If readers wanted to be in the club, they had to pay for access.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the digital newsstand. Readers weren’t all that impressed. Print had dominated the newspaper landscape since long before Clark Kent and Lois Lane headed to the office. Readers wouldn’t pick up a paper and walk away without paying back then. But that was because print was the only game in town. Digital changed everything.

Traditional newspaper readers knew that to read what was happening in the world, they had to subscribe or pick up a copy from a vendor. But the Internet brought about so many upstarts who offered news for free. Suddenly, content was available, and readers didn’t have to pay for it. Why, then, would anyone embrace a wall that restricted access? They didn’t.

The issue facing publishers today is offering readers a reason to pay for content access. It’s already established that news can be had for nothing. Any blogger with a keyboard can write about local and world events and not pay or charge a dime for it. And in many ways, that has devalued the news and all of the work that goes into it. So the onus is on publishers to remind readers about why content and access to it is a worthy investment.

The User Experience is Everything

For all of the disappointing newspaper paywall attempts, some publishers are getting it right. It’s all about the execution, says Media Life magazine.

The truth is, nearly half of readers over the age of 25 don’t seem to mind paying for access after all. A recent Meclabs report showed that what’s missing is the customer-centric focus. Readers need a reason to believe that what’s on the other side of the paywall is worth it. And once they get there, they need to see it firsthand. So the user experience needs an overhaul.

One of the ways that newspapers approach the user experience ties into its advertising. Obtrusive, annoying ads are an immediate turnoff. In fact, they’re such a turnoff that many readers install ad-blocking software to avoid them. And that, of course, creates a brand new revenue problem.

Some publishers moved on to restrict access to users who block ads, offering access only for people who agreed to uninstall the software. Or at least those who would whitelist the publication with the ad-blocking software company. But that also backfired. Publishers hold fewer controlling cards now. Readers will pay. But only if they perceive the experience as valuable on their terms.

Which Paywalls Work and Which Ones Don’t?

According to the Meclabs report, one of the most annoying things that a reader can experience is partial access to an article. If a paywall pops up after the reader has scrolled through the first few paragraphs, they’re likely to click away and find another version of the story someplace else.

Another mistake is flying an early-warning flag that reminds readers when they’re closing in on their weekly/monthly article limit. The theory was that by knowing in advance, they’d show newspapers the money. But again, the report shows that readers are more likely to leave than pay for access.

The trick appears to be timing. If a reader tries to access an article and then hits a paywall, they’re more likely to pay up. The Boston Globe increased their conversions by 61 percent using that approach, says Media Life.

An early warning just gives the reader a chance to forget about the newspaper until the free content cycle resets itself in a week or month. A failed attempt at access, however, puts the reader in a position of making a choice on the spot: pay and read, or accept the denial of access and walk away.

Newspaper paywall
Content holds the keys to the kingdom.

The Power of Content Can’t be Overestimated

Regardless of the paywall strategy, content is still king. The ad experience can make or break a newspaper’s shot at gaining new subscribers. But if the content is watery-thin, subscribers aren’t likely to pony up more than once. The old “fool me once, fool me twice” idiom fits here.

Bearing in mind that content is everywhere on the Internet and the vast majority of it is free, yours has to be better. There’s no reason not to click away if what you offer requires a credit card but isn’t any better than anyone else’s.

Content is part of the whole user experience. And there are revenue-generating strategies within it, as well. Native advertising can give publishers a one-two revenue punch. If the native ads offer something of value to readers, they become another reason to subscribe. And the more people who subscribe, the more native advertising becomes hot inventory for you.

Writers, editors, marketing and the advertising team have a focused goal now. There are too many news alternatives for any newspaper to think of an audience as a given. But when the reader is happy, everything else falls into place and the paywall can work.

There is worldwide competition for readers, and many competitors offer up the news for free. That will probably never change, but it doesn’t have to. And the revenue answer isn’t more and more ads. Readers will subscribe to newspapers. They do subscribe, as long as they get what they pay for.

Target audience age isn’t the paywall barrier, and neither is the market. At least not in full. What matters is value.

Integrity and content matter more now perhaps ever before. The shift to digital didn’t spell the demise of solid reporting, good writing and sound editing. If anything, it ushered in a new era where readers can be more selective and pay for the opportunity to access your good work.

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