‘Frustrate Them Just the Right Amount’; Publishers Search for the Perfect Paywall

Determining the right balance for your paywall is a never-ending—but thoroughly important—quest. What to put in front of the paywall? How much to put there? If metered, how many? For a while, INMA was doing timewalls, giving readers a day or so to read an article before it goes into subscriber-only mode. It was cool to watch the clock go down, but I’m not sure of its logic. Here’s some practical advice.

“The key here is to balance frustration and engagement,” said Madeleine White, head of international at Poool, a French start-up focused on audience conversion strategies, in an article on FIPP about Elle’s successful subscription model.

“Ultimately, this is what decides whether someone’s going to convert or not. You engage users with your newsletter, with valuable content, the range of UX features, and then you frustrate them just the right amount with a conversion wall to encourage them to give you some value in exchange for some other value.”

I asked one of my go-to industry savants, Matt Bailey of Site Logic and the Endless Coffee Cup podcast, how he handles paywalls. “For my training content, I have a number of ‘always free’ programs, and I keep adding to them,” he wrote me. “It makes a great hook and keeps its own audience. My regular courses have a bigger price on them, so it’s a big jump for some people. Having a semi-regular free session builds my mailing list and potential buyers.”

Bailey went on to assess some of what AI vendors are doing. “What I’ve seen lately—it’s highly effective to have access to a portion [of your program]. This is what’s happening with a lot of new AI programs right now. Free, but limited hours, requests, files, etc. in order to prove the ability of the program.

“I bought an annual subscription yesterday for an AI software that creates audiograms—because the free access limited me evaluating 30 minutes a month. Once I tried it, it was amazing and I bought it. I think there is a reason that most AI programs are using that hook—it works.”

Here is more advice about paywalls:

Don’t hide your premium content. A common problem for publishers, the FIPP story said, is that their premium content often goes unnoticed on their website. “On average, half of visitors will be lost at this stage in the funnel, with people not reaching the premium model or paywall. It’s crucial then that a brand’s subscription offer is more visible to move people through the funnel and get them to discover the value of the premium content.” ELLE gives premium articles a “sticky header with a CTA on it, adding a promotional banner and putting another promotion at the end of the story. A tag clearly identifies it as premium content, which is easily noticeable since everything is one color.”

Make it easy to find. According to Poool’s White, “52% of visitors to premium content never see the paywall because it’s too late to load, loads after adverts, or is just not high enough up the page.” At Elle, moving the paywall up the website by just 10% had an impact on conversion rates.

Don’t give too much away. Sarah Ebner, executive editor and head of newsletters for the Financial Times, “was surprised to see that [their] breaking news alerts consisted of a few paragraphs with a ‘read more’ CTA at the end. Putting so much detail in these emails meant that there was no huge impetus to click through,” she wrote. “We had given too much of the story away already. We made some simple changes, changing these alerts to only one paragraph, and altering ‘read more’ to ‘read the full story.’ The click-through rate went up by 41% in a month.”

Offer discounted trials. “An analysis of 35 leading news subscription organizations has shown that the price of digital subscriptions has fallen since 2017 in real terms—at least £2 per month once adjusted for inflation,” Tara Lajumoke, managing director of FT Strategies, wrote. “Of these publishers, 27 had some sort of heavily discounted trial. These tactics allow organizations to convert their non-core target audiences, without hurting the ARPU of their existing subscriber base.”

Get tougher. Most publishers are too generous and need to stop more readers to force conversion, a Shorenstein report said. You want to achieve a high stop rate—that is the percentage of all digital users who are “stopped” by a subscription prompt, a paywall or a meter limit. It is calculated by the number of users stopped by a meter or paywall in a given month over the number of unique visitors during that period.

Lower your meter limit. A majority of publishers with metered models set their meter limits at 5 articles per month or lower. This number has gone steadily down since 2012. Some publishers used to set the paywall as high as 25 articles a month. “As publishers have experimented, and readers have become accustomed to digital subscription, meter limits have tended to decline among the publishers studied and within the industry at large,” the Shorenstein report said.

Increase reader opportunities to encounter the meter. Is the meter simply the articles a reader clicks on, or are there more factors involved? You might lower the meter rate for more editorially-intensive content. Their limit might be increased if they do other things with you. For those with an ad blocker, a subscription message might be customized to invite the reader to subscribe or turn your ad blocker off to continue to read content before the average meter stop.


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