5 Reasons Paywalls Fail

Paywalls are the electronic toll gates that require website visitors to pay in order to view content on the site.

Paywalls sell you the metaphorical keys to the castle.
Paywalls sell you the metaphorical keys to the castle.

There are many different types of paywalls. Some charge a yearly subscription, some charge by the month, others offer day passes, and still others charge on a per-article basis. Many print newspapers include access beyond the paywall as part of their print subscriptions. In general, people grumble about paywalls, but paywalls can work if they’re done well and avoid the pitfalls that have been shown to cause paywall failure. Here are 5 reasons why paywalls fail.

1. Because Paid Subscriber Bases Are Hard to Increase

Print ad revenues are down. Online ad revenues are down. Some newspapers have attempted to recoup those losses with paywalls. While some bigger newspapers have built reasonable online subscriber bases during paywall rollouts (when many publishers offer special deals for web subscriptions), growing those online subscriber numbers is a real challenge. When publications stake their success or failure on online paid subscriber numbers, they limit their options.

2. Because Only Print Subscribers Have Access to the Web Version

The Atlantic used to only allow print subscribers to have access to the web version of their magazine. This did nothing to increase print subscriptions, and obviously limited web traffic severely. In the second decade of the 21st century, people go online for information, and if they don’t find it in one place, they can usually find something comparable elsewhere. The Atlantic’s paywall was too severe, and it didn’t work. Instead, The Atlantic re-branded itself as a multi-platform business, took down the paywall, and now has 2.5 million unique visitors per month.

3. Because Paywalls Are Too Complex

Paywalls need to be simple. Otherwise people just won’t bother. When a publication offers half a dozen different paid ways to access content, suddenly users not only have to get out their credit cards, but they have to make a decision about which type of paid access gives them the most value for their planned site use. People simply won’t go for a paywall that’s complicated, particularly if it doesn’t deliver value after they cross the paywall.

Yearly subscription, day pass, one-article charge if the moon is in the seventh house? Nobody has time to decipher which paywall option is the right one for their needs.
Yearly subscription, day pass, one-article charge if the moon is in the seventh house? Nobody has time to decipher which paywall option is the right one for their needs.

4. Because Readers Complain and Get Their Information Elsewhere

Paywalls aren’t going to work if readers know they can get the information they seek elsewhere. If you’re one of three dailies for a city and the only one with a paywall, you’re basically routing traffic directly to your competitors. Most readers today are savvy enough to know that if they can’t access your story about a manufacturing plant shutting down because it’s behind a paywall, they can go to any number of other sites to get the information. It’s far less trouble to do a Google search than to get out a credit card and enter the information.

5. Because the Paywall Doesn’t Correspond to Added Value

When nothing about a site changes except for the addition of a paywall, that paywall is going to have a tough time surviving. Readers expect something extra from a previously free website if they’re going to pay for access. That “something extra” with successful paywalls may include Sunday print delivery, in-depth online stories that aren’t on the free version of the site, or even perks like baseball tickets. If paywalls don’t add value to a site, people won’t use them.

What can publishers learn from failed paywalls? Here are some takeaways:

  • Paywalls can’t make up for all lost ad revenue

  • Paywalls won’t increase print subscriptions

  • Paywalls should be simple and priced reasonably

  • Paywalls for non-exclusive content simply drive readers to competitors

  • Paywalls must correspond to added site value

If you’re a trade publisher or newspaper, you may have wondered whether a paywall is a good idea, but the bottom line is, if you implement a paywall and understand your readers, you can be successful. In many cases, a “freemium” model that allows decent content for free, with extra features behind a paywall, is a good compromise between the solid, no-holes paywall and unlimited free access. People are willing to pay for value-added content, but they’re not going to fall in line to pay just because you’ve erected a paywall.

Publishers generally find that a multi-faceted monetization strategy works best where ad revenues, sponsored content, custom job boards, and charging for premium content are all part of the strategy. If you’re a digital publisher interested in exploring your website’s monetization options, we invite you to learn about the recruitment advertising solutions we offer for media companies and digital publishers.

Photo Credits: xedos4 / freedigitalphotos.net, MR LIGHTMAN / freedigitalphotos.net

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