Why Content Paywalls Almost Never Work – And How To Implement One That Does

  • Wednesday, December 12, 2018
  • Design

There was a time when digital media was almost completely ad-supported. There’s no use mincing words about what changed. Content creators got lazy, and many advertising networks turned into little more than obtrusive, obnoxious vessels of malware and irrelevance.

And readers unsurprisingly got sick of it.

Excepting a few extremely rare and narrow circumstances, web advertising doesn’t work anymore. It’s a bad revenue model for websites, distracting users from their content, sucking up computing resources, and cluttering up a page’s design. Especially with the rise of sponsored content, web ads are on their last legs.

Publishers seem to have fallen into two camps as far as this revelation is concerned. On the one side, you’ve got those who stubbornly cling to their outdated revenue models like a drowning man clinging to driftwood (looking at you, Forbes). They block anyone with an ad blocker from accessing their website, cutting off a potential source of revenue.

On the other, you’ve those who are exploring new, more innovative content delivery methods. The paywall is one such tactic. You’ve probably encountered it at least once – either it blocks you out after clicking through a few articles, or prevents you from accessing a site’s content altogether.

Neither tactic works. Not really. We live in an era of limitless information – especially where news sites are concerned, most readers that encounter a paywall will simply bounce and get their information elsewhere.

There are exceptions, of course. The Financial Times evidently has a successful subscription service, likely consisting primarily of business readers. And The Harvard Business Review’s metered paywall has honestly never rubbed me the wrong way.

But ultimately, unless you’re a major publication with a great deal of authority, an established audience, and strong pre-existing revenue, paywalls are a bad bet. Blocking readers off from your content will do more harm than good. And if you’re a news agency, it runs counter to your existing business model.

“Most major newspapers…have rapidly revealed the absurdity of [paywalls] every time there’s been serious news to report.,” writes Rob Howard of Quartz. “The paywall is inherently in conflict with journalism’s primary goal: to educate and inform the public about important issues. When the papers say “this is so important that we’re making it free,” they’re simultaneously saying that all the other stuff they publish doesn’t really matter, so they’ll charge you for it.”

Paywalls aren’t infallible, either. Savvy users, embittered that they’re being taunted with content that’s just beyond their reach, will probably find a way around yours. So not only will you be driving away a bunch of people who might otherwise enjoy your website, you’ll have people circumventing your paywall to access your stuff anyway.

Sounds like a lose/lose, doesn’t it?

But what’s a business to do, then? If advertising doesn’t work and paywalls rarely work, how exactly are you supposed to monetize your content? What can you do to keep your business afloat?

Simple – you’ll have to get a little creative.

Building A Better Paywall

Consider the following revenue model. A website provides the majority of its content for free. However, much of this content is still ad-supported. The owner of the site doesn’t prevent people from browsing their pages with an ad-blocker enabled, but they do place unobtrusive banners requesting the ad-blocked be disabled (and police their ad network so those that do opt to view ads don’t regret it).

That’s just the first step, though. The site also offers a paid subscription that allows users to browse their site totally ad-free. This subscription (which they keep both nominal and affordable), enables them to pay the bills and keep providing their audience with the content they love.

There’s even another tier above this basic subscription which gives access to better, more interesting, and more valuable content. While everyone has access to blog posts and videos, only premium subscribers can download the organization’s eBooks, take their educational courses, listen to their podcasts, or sit in on their webinars.

Taken together, this alternative is known as a ‘freemium’ or ‘tiered’ subscription model. It keeps advertisements from being too obnoxious and doesn’t push readers away after they’ve consumed too much content. Moreover, it provides the users who actually want premium content with an opportunity to purchase it.

Because see, here’s the problem with most paywalls. They paint all of a website’s readers with the same brush. They neglect that different people have different motivations – and a differing tolerance for what kind of information they’re willing to pay for.

The challenge with this model is that you need to be capable of offering premium content that’s worth what you charge. You need to be able to establish yourself as an authority that people are willing to pay to read. Of course, you could argue that little has changed in this regard – that this has always been the challenge with online media.

Closing Thoughts

We live in an age of endless information. An era where monetizing content is more difficult than ever, because there’s just so much of it everywhere. In such a world, it’s not enough to simply wall people off from your website in hope that they’ll pay to access it – not unless you’re already a major player in the game.

Instead, you need to think about how best to provide value to your readers. You need to evaluate how much they’d be willing to pay, and what they’d be willing to pay for.  As you might expect, at the end of the day it all comes down to how well you know your audience.

Because the better you understand their needs and desires, the easier it will be to find a monetization strategy that works for both of you.

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