How to Use Paywalls Effectively

If you’re a trade publisher, you obviously face some difficult challenges in today’s era of (mostly) free online information. As traditional advertising opportunities dry up, many of your competitors have pinned their hopes for long-term profitability on the monetization of their publications’ companion websites. But before you join them by setting up an ironclad paywall around your digital content, think carefully about which outcome is more likely — increased revenues, or decreased readership.

RELATED: Are There Serious Problems Ahead for Paywalls?

The Problem With Paywalls

Paywalls have grown increasingly common in recent years among digital publishers of various sizes, including many of the nation’s leading newspapers. Their purpose is twofold: to obtain revenue from online readers who would otherwise access unlimited content free of charge, and to boost subscriptions to the print version of the publication, with its full complement of content.

On the surface, paywall monetization seems like a logical and fair way to distribute your valuable content. But erecting a paywall around everything will backfire on you, because:

  • No one can evaluate you. How can visitors decide whether or not they want to pay for your content if they have no idea what that content is, or how well it’s presented, or how strongly it might impact their lives? Putting up an all-exclusive paywall is like building a fifty-foot-tall stone wall around a fifty-foot-tall home. What’s inside may be gorgeous, but who can possibly know what they’re missing? Many publishers get around this problem by walling off only certain corners of their sites while leaving others fully viewable as “bait.” For instance, if a visitor to your classical music site loves your free short weekly CD reviews, then he’ll be strongly tempted to pay for your full-length articles on composers, repertoire, and recent live performances.
  • If they can get it for free, they will. If you have a paywall around content that can be just as easily had anywhere else on the Internet for free, you’ll succeed only in turning viewers away. That’s why you absolutely must free up your more generic content for a wide audience, while reserving those professional white papers, study results, and other valuable, in-depth pieces for a paying audience. If the material is available only from you, then a paywall will yield profits as a coveted “VIP room” — even as the free stuff makes the rounds and enters the public consciousness via re-tweets, likes, et cetera.

When and How to Monetize?

So if paywalls have the potential to turn away a desirable chunk of prospective viewers, what’s the alternative? The answer lies in a modern twist on that tried-and-true income source publishers have enjoyed since the first trade publications first came out — advertising. If your niche and viewer demographics are sharply-defined enough, and you’re pulling in an attractive number of page views on a consistent basis, then online advertisers may flock to your website. Native advertising featuring ad-like articles (or if you prefer, article-like ads) for relevant products and services may also prove profitable — as long as you label them clearly for what they are to set them apart from your own content.

Paywalls have their place in today’s digital publishing world, but they can do more harm than good if you use them as a barbed-wire fence instead of an enticing velvet rope. Reserve your paywall for the most valuable and desirable tidbits — while letting your other content suggest just how valuable and desirable those tidbits are.

Can digital ad revenue and paywalls replace print revenue losses?

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