Getting Audiences to Pay When Everyone’s Behind the Paywall 

In the rapidly-changing digital publishing industry, publishers who thrived on ad revenue now find themselves fighting for scraps from Facebook and Google. As a result, an industry once skeptical of paywalls is now building them by the dozen. Fortunately, audiences are more willing to pay for digital content than ever, but with so many premium options available, how do publishers set themselves apart?

Foundationally, publishers must have quality original content behind their wall, or audiences will just find similar content elsewhere for free. But to convert subscribers, publishers must also find a way to prove the value of that original content and earn audience trust. That’s why strong direct audience relationships are so important. Publishers can follow these steps to build the kind of audience ties that lead to paid subscriptions.

The New Role of Facebook: Convert to a Direct Audience 

Digital publishers were wary of paywalls when social media clicks and ad revenue flowed freely. Unfortunately, building a business on Facebook only created a wall of a different kind: a wall between the publisher and audience, and that’s a wall that doesn’t pay. With Facebook recently reducing the organic reach of publisher content to zero, you essentially have no inherent social following.

Your priority for Facebook traffic should be to capture an email address. With Facebook traffic, they won’t stay long (1.2 page views per visit), you don’t know when they’ll be back if at all,  and they are unlikely to convert to a paying subscription, especially on their first visit. An email subscription is a direct link to market to your audience indefinitely, making email the most important tool for nurturing audiences into paying customers.

The key steps with regard to Facebook as are follows–

  • Make your content as easy as possible to share, Facebook reach can now only be accomplished through sharing.
  • Use Facebook as an acquisition channel for email subscribers, replace your paywall with an email capture wall for site visitors from Facebook.
  • If you are publishing via Instant Articles, make sure you are using the email newsletter signup CTA to capture a direct email relationship.

More generally on your site and for all traffic channels, maximize email conversions by using email capture widgets to grab the audience’s attention. Use active “ad like” units that scroll out from the bottom of the screen and offer readers a newsletter subscription, these can be 10X more effective than simple signup forms that sit at the bottom of articles.

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Converting the Direct Audience to Paying Audience 

Having a direct link to your audience through email makes it easier to show that content is worth paying for, by “teasing” the offering over time. The New York Times found that people are twice as likely to become paid subscribers if they subscribe to a newsletter first.

Publishers need to start thinking like marketers. With the email address, you are able to continuously “advertise” (push to the inbox) your “product” (sample content) with growing confidence that, eventually, the reader will bite on a premium subscription.

Your metered paywall works in concert with your newsletters. Newsletters drive engagement, grow the realized value of your content, and ultimately triggers the paywall at a point when the user is ready to buy. Too many paywalls fail to convert simply because the audience does not engage enough to trigger them (e.g. 10 articles per month). Or, they trigger prematurely, before the reader has seen enough value to convert (e.g. 2 articles per month).

By providing a sample of relevant content in the inbox, you engage your audience continuously, driving a growing awareness of the value of paying for your content. Email teaser newsletters and “guest passes” neatly solve the chicken and egg problem, whereby readers won’t pay before they see the value but the value is in the content they must pay to see.

Optimize Your Paywall and Maximize Conversions

The ideal metered paywall allows audiences to sample enough content to see the value, but not so much that they are satiated before hitting the article limit. But how do you find that point?

While personalized content is a hot topic among publishers looking to increase engagement, a personalized paywall can also increase revenue. Not everyone has the same appetite for paid content, so you can use dynamic paywalls to adjust the meter based on an individual’s traffic source, location, or other data that might predict their willingness to pay.

Optimized paywalls can also be deployed to maximize ad revenue by not cutting off impressions from visitors who are very unlikely to pay, for example, first-time visitors from Facebook, or international.

The publishers who come out ahead will be the ones who place a renewed focus on establishing a directly reachable audience through email, showing value with quality content, and optimizing their metered paywalls.

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