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What, how and why digital publishers need to A/B test their paywall strategies

Admin | 29 October 2021 | Read time: 9 minutes
Topics | Paywalls

Paywalls aren’t going anywhere. In fact, we’ll only be seeing more of them. 

According to Wired, 76% of all American newspapers were utilising a paywall in 2019 - up 16% in 2 years. The Wall Street Journal alone had 2.4 million subscribers by the end of 2020. However, not all paywalls are created equal, and tailoring your paywall to your customer is crucial for the publishers’ bottom line. 

The best way to find your paywall sweet spot is through testing and experimentation. A/B testing is a smart yet simple way to take the guesswork out of the paywall development process. 

But what makes A/B testing so important? And how can it be useful for digital publishers when leveraging their paywalls to iterate different strategies? Today we explore why A/B testing can be the secret to unlocking the optimal user experience for your customer base and bolstering your revenue.

What is A/B testing?

In short, A/B testing, sometimes called split testing, is a simple way to compare two variations of the same experience. It’s used to establish which version of your content receives more engagement from your customers, or which segment of your audience reacts best to certain messaging. This can either be done randomly across your client base or targeted towards specific audiences. 

For example, you can send out a newsletter in two different colour schemes to the whole of your audience, randomising who receives blue and who receives green, and then track the engagement on it. 



Or, alternatively, you could send out your newsletters to specific groups of customers, under 40s and over 65s for example, to see who resonates with them specifically. This results in a collection of data on what is getting your desired customers clicking, allowing you to customise your content towards them going forward. 

Why do digital publishers need to A/B test?

Crucially, A/B testing is a tool your business can use to investigate what your customers, and potential customers, like and interact with. The experimentation element of A/B testing allows you to edit your content and tailor your user experience strategy to boost engagement. 

An important outcome of this is preventing ‘bounce’ - where individuals visit your site but quickly click off and go elsewhere without engaging with your content. Optimised pages prevent bounce and encourage higher conversion of unknown readers by aligning value with product offering. This directly impacts your customer retention and helps avoid churn. At its core, A/B testing allows you to find the ultimate experience for your customer and encourage them to both start and continue their subscription.

What should digital publishers A/B test?


The offers you show readers need to be tailored to their needs. 

A/B testing reveals which offers have a high and effective click-through rate for which audiences. The best strategy is to promote to audiences subscription packages that appeal to their interests. Split testing may reveal, for example, that low-value customers have a greater click through rate on short term subscriptions in comparison to the high-value counterparts. Similarly, some demographics within your audience might have a higher propensity to convert to specific content packages, such as Sport or Financial News.

Implementing unique subscription offers to different sectors of your audience ensures a larger conversion rate for all groups.

Messaging and wording 

Your wording and copy has a large impact on how likely your readers are to bounce, engage, or convert. This is particularly true with calls to action (CTAs). Engagement with a CTA can vary depending on phrasing; it is essential for publishers to ensure that readers are following CTAs so that there is no friction for continued activity and purchases. 

A/B testing is useful here; randomised members of your readership can be shown different wording and the engagement between the groups can be tracked. This way you’re aware of (and can implement) the phrases that best captivate your audience.


One of the key ways unknown readers are enticed to subscribe to your publication is through experiencing a personalised subscriber journey. Metering and triggers are central to this. 

A/B testing can determine when to provide readers with personalised pop-up messaging or emails by metering the numbers of articles read. In a crowded digital publishing field, you often only get one chance to convert a reader. Showing them the wrong offer at the wrong time can dissuade them from your service for good - wasting the money and time spent in getting them up to a trigger point.

Therefore, split testing and optimising your conversion strategy is crucial to building loyalty and avoiding the negative impacts of blanket messaging or mistimed paywalls.

How do you A/B test using a paywall?

Split testing can be great for increasing engagement, but this engagement is useless unless an ultimate purchase is made. Offers, messaging, and triggers are all part of your paywall strategy. An intelligent, dynamic paywall is the publisher’s best way of implementing A/B testing throughout their business and collecting data.

An intelligent paywall utilises data to personalise a conversion strategy depending on a user’s behaviour and engagement. By analysing how a reader responds to your content, offers, and triggers, the guesswork is largely taken out of conversion. The intelligent paywall is unique in allowing differing rules to be experimented with, each set dictating when pop-ups should happen and how the paywall should react. Resulting reader behaviour can be learnt from and used to improve conversion strategy.

Therefore an intelligent paywall is key because it allows you to build, implement, and rebuild, based on the data it has gathered. Further personalisation is possible on the basis of separating user attributes allowing publishers to test the effectiveness of strategy at a closer level. Rates of conversion, engagement, and bounce all factor into dictating ultimate paywall efficiency. 

The iterated strategy of experimentation helps create optimum conversion.

Can publishers afford not to A/B test?

A/B testing helps you identify not only what’s keeping readers glued to your page, but also how best to convert those readers into paying subscribers. 

It is a simple yet profoundly valuable method which digital publishers can’t afford to miss if they want to convert and retain readers. Digital publishers who regularly experiment with their paywall strategy and split test audience segments learn far more about their readers. 

Faced with a growing number of competition within the digital publishing industry, split testing is the effective practice that gives news and media companies an edge over the market.

Looking to A/B test your way to subscription success? Check out Zephr’s intuitive drag-and-drop subscription platform.


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