‘We Changed Parameters’ and Saw a 50% Jump; Lower Paywalls, Higher Returns

The international media association WAN-IFRA recently held its Digital Media Asia 2020 conference, virtually, of course. “Input from the management, marketing and data teams was key to improving the subscription rate of the South China Morning Post’s (SCMP) digital version, according to Vienna Lee, SCMP’s digital marketing director, audience growth.” (This was reported on the WAN-IFRA site.)


“The SCMP ePaper was previously free to all readers,” Lee said. “But on August 10th, we launched a paywall for selected markets. Then we changed the parameters so that readers would get five free articles before hitting the paywall instead of 10 previously.’’


“Surprisingly, there was a 50% higher subscription rate with five free articles compared to 10 free articles. The next initiative involved changing the background color of the subscription page from a lighter background to a darker background. ‘To our surprise again, readers preferred the darker background,’ added Lee. Further tests also showed higher engagement when readers logged in with their personal accounts, compared to being anonymous.”


I’ve mentioned before a report that came out last year from the Shorenstein Center at Harvard and Lenfest Institute titled, How Today’s News Publishers Can Use Data, Best Practices, and Test-And-Learn Tactics to Build Better Pay-Meters.


Even though it came out before the pandemic, the practices it preached seem to be even more accurate today. Here are some of those:


Most publishers are too generous and need to stop more readers to force conversion. The report talks a great deal about the importance of having 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. The report found that the organizations that are stopping more people have stronger digital businesses. During 2020, many publishers did lift their paywall for their COVID-19 stories and resources. But that bump has started to fade some.


You might want to lower your meter limit. As the above example attests to, a majority of publishers with metered models set their meter limits at five 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.” I know many publishers, including Digiday, now do three.


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.


Quicken your load times. “Page load times represent the largest difference between successful publishers in the top percentile and 50th percentile of publishers studied, with a median load times of 5.76 seconds.” Avoid advertising overload—probably easier in 2020—use real estate to drive readers to subscription options, and encourage content discovery through customized recommendations and infinite scrolls.


Be clear and make it easy. “The most effective stop messages include a single clear call to action, offer attractive introductory trial rates and include buttons that make clear the location(s) to click to advance the offer. Others include content-specific messages that link to the specific articles or sections the readers are pursuing.” If you want people just to register in order to get past an initial paywall, try to convey that registration will be very brief. “Small changes in the purchase experience for a user—such as slight delays in page load times, unclear instructions, extra data fields, or confusing presentations of an offer—can lead a user to abandon their purchase.” Also, the desktop conversion rate was five times higher than the rate for mobile.

Again, you can see the whole report here.

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