To paywall or not to paywall - is that the question?

There are a number paywall types you might consider implementing within the context of a subscription strategy - hard, dynamic, metered, freemium, hybrid of metered and freemium, membership (donation), premium etc. That being said, if you are a publisher reading this article, chances are you are looking into ways to end to your dependency on ad sales revenues. And if so, you probably have a more fundamental fish to fry - data capture. And this is what this blog post is there to assist with - helping you learn how to walk in the subscription economy before you try to run.

According to a report by The Lenfest Institute (Digital Subscription Reader Revenue: Benchmarks & Best Practices from 500+ Publications Worldwide), “just six years ago, nearly all digital news was free. Publishers believed users would not pay for content and feared losing ad revenue. Today, most U.S. newspapers (78%) charge for digital access.” To paywall or not paywall was much more relevant a question to ask about 10 years ago - when the media industry started seeing a manageable yet steady decline in circulation and print advertising sales. The culprits are numerous and they are not the focus of this article, but it all boils down to a change in behaviour driven by technological advancement.

A few things have changed since The Times (of London) set up their first paywall and the New York Times started experimenting with various types of paywall, back in 2010. The relationship with your smartphone is very likely to have turned from a relative novelty into a marriage and the introduction of 4G has definitely facilitated the transition. Non-media companies (such as Netflix, Spotify and Amazon to name but a few) have helped develop a digital subscription culture on a global scale - and, in turn, digital product consumers have become more aware of the benefits of letting a digital product owner drive data-powered relationships.

Media companies have started taking notice of all of the above and have recognised that they must “future-proof” their businesses by shifting from relying solely on transactional-based revenue models to adopting diversified consumer-facing revenue models. And being hyper-focused on building lasting and profitable relationships with readers is essential for that purpose. Various reader relationship strategies have been developed over the past decade and the most successful ones involve building a robust audience database, which most media companies do by gathering data through their digital offerings.

There is a great deal to be learned from anonymous and unregistered visitors. This has never been more a fact to ponder on than now, especially since Safari and Firefox eliminated 3rd-party cookies and Chrome committed to follow suit. Some media companies are reluctantly sitting on their hands and waiting to see what happens when the 3rd-party cookie crumbles and what that will mean for their businesses, while others have committed to getting to know their audiences and climbing up the data maturity ladder - creating revenue diversification opportunities along the way.

Stepping onto the first rung of the data maturity ladder inevitably requires 1st-party data collection. Understanding the types of 1st-party data and its capabilities to drive digital growth goes a long way towards devising an effective data collection strategy. Generally speaking, there are two types of 1st-party data: implicit (gathered through cookies) and explicit (left manually by the readers themselves).

Collecting this data implicitly (in the form of cookies) is the way it’s been done traditionally. It is frictionless for it only requires or a reader to click “agree” on the cookie T&Cs (which they rarely bother to read). However, that data only provides insight into readers' behaviour. Ways brands collect first-party data implicitly include via: websites, Google Analytics, CRM systems, mobile apps, social media, etc. And the first step maximising 1st-party cookie consent so that return visits are accurately recorded. It’s even worth testing the effect of different cookie consent banners and wording to optimise the experience. I

Now it’s likely you’ve already ticked some or all of these boxes, but don’t stop there...

Analysis of your audience interactions could reveal explicit 1st-party data collection opportunities. Get creative. Start experimenting with various ways to offer value in return for data. “It is absolutely crucial to be able to design the new experiences, acquire new users and demonstrate the quality content that we have without giving everything away for free, says Denis Haman, former CTO at the consumer group Which?, one of Europe’s largest subscription publishers.

This brings us to the second type of 1st-party data, explicit - i.e. collected in the form of interaction. A report by Econsultancy (The Promise of First-Party Data) found that 74 per cent of marketers surveyed believe 1st-party data provides the strongest customer insights. Ways to collect 1st party data with permission (explicitly) include: dynamic registration forms, dynamic data-capture walls, customer service interactions, surveys, polls, points of purchase, or in-app functionalities, interactive challenges (games, quizzes, puzzles etc.) You can then leverage that data to drive engagement, customer satisfaction and lifetime value with users through targeted content, products, advertising and services for individual customers.


A more sophisticated approach to first-party data capture is through progressive profiling. It utilises a registered reader behaviour and past interactions to customise future interactions and experiences that then capture more granular first-party data. For example, if a registered reader is reading an article on summer fashion trends, you can truncate the article halfway through and ask the reader “What do you usually rock in the summer: skirt, dress, shorts?” in exchange for allowing the reader to read the article in full. This approach not only gleans valuable data from your most loyal customers, but it also creates a personalised experience that strengthens the connection.

Remember, many are looking for more data from their consumers. So make sure your request doesn’t just stand out but provides added value for your customers as well. Whether that’s rewarding them with points or experiences, this is another opportunity to strengthen their emotional loyalty with your business and you don’t want to let it pass you by.

Once you have developed an effective 1st-party data collection strategy (and are experimenting with ways to optimise it - A/B testing) the next steps to focus on are:

Reader engagement - once you have an understanding of your audience segments and how to satisfy their preferences, you can achieve increasing reader engagement. “Once you’ve discovered the stories that individual readers are willing to pay for, and even better the stories that keep them paying, you can finally move from reach to relationships,” according to Nick Tjaardtsra, Head of Global Advisory at The World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers.

Reader revenue - driving financial value directly from readers, whether through subscriptions or net new revenue opportunities is key. Since an advertising-only digital strategy can have negative ramifications for sustained, quality journalism, digital subscriptions make serving quality journalism to readers the number one business priority for publishers. Tip: using the “metered” approach and leveraging data and A/B testing, you can “dip a toe in the water” and experiment with digital subscriptions with little risk.

Advertising revenue - reach the right audience and deliver high-impact ad campaigns that do not diminish the reader experience. Aggregate data on your online media brands and create audience segments that make it easier for advertisers to target more across your sites, in a personalised manner.

To sum things up, the question “Should I put my content behind a paywall, and, if so, which content you should put behind a paywall?” could be said to stem from a lack of understanding of your audiences. Building a robust data picture of who they are through dynamic collection of 1st-party data - implicitly (in the form of cookies) and, more importantly, explicitly (in the form of interaction) - will give you clearer perspective. That being said, all considered, it’s fair to conclude that the real question is “What to put behind a datawall or paywall and what not to put behind it?" Although, admittedly, that doesn’t trip off the tongue quite so elegantly…

If you’d like to discuss how building a 1st-party data advantage can benefit your content business, then we’re open all hours - while social distancing and working from home. Just drop us a line...

Topics: Customer Journey, Paywalls, subscription model, dynamic paywall, 3rd party cookies, subscription economy, first-party data, registration

 

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