Paywalls: 7 top tips

Jim Foster’s publishing world…

By Jim Foster

Paywalls: 7 top tips

I’m sat in a small bungalow on a beach on Kamalame Cay, a tiny island off the coast of Andros in the Bahamas. It’s bloomin’ hot, extremely bloomin’ expensive and there isn’t any internet to submit this, which is a problem I need to solve in the next day or two. But the view over the Caribbean Sea is enchanting and the waters are a mix of crystal-clear azure blues and emerald greens.

Andros is one of the most laid-back islands in the Caribbean. The people here leave the doors of their houses unlocked. There isn’t any crime to speak of and they don’t really care too much about the whims of globalisation. Many don’t have wi-fi and if they do, it seems as slow as the old dial-up system of the mid-1990s.

Amazingly, phones here are used to actually call people. The smartphones people do have seem to be 10-year-old Samsung models. WhatsApp, Snap and Facebook don’t seem to have made it as far as Andros. Twitter is a sound the local birds make.

I love all that. It’s such a refreshing change. Eyes aren’t glued to screens by zombified individuals continuously scrolling through reams of utter drivel on social media. And conversations aren’t interrupted by notifications telling people that their mate’s just posted a video on Facebook of a cat doing something unimaginably amusing.

Andros is certainly a long old way from Hamburg, where I found myself two weeks ago on business, discussing digital strategy at our bi-annual conference with esteemed German colleagues and the suppliers of the software we use for our apps.

We agreed that the digital landscape for publishing in general – whether that’s web, mobile or app – has changed significantly since the end of 2017. There are new threats and new opportunities appearing all the time as tech and user trends continue their ever-lasting evolution.

We debated the fact there seems to be a recurring interest in paywalls for digital content online, which I don’t find at all surprising. We discussed the advances being made with production and the automation of workflows and functionalities. And we talked of the growth of the ‘all-you-can-read’ apps based on the Spotify model.

The generic conclusion we reached was that more efficiency, lower cost, broad functionality improvements and automation – especially on mobile – seemed to be where we’re moving over the next six months. Along with, how will the ‘all-you-can-read’ disruptors affect strategy in the longer term (that being a question I’ll devote an entire column to, when I feel the time is right to do so).

Come full circle

For now, let’s look at paywalls, mainly because it’s trendy to talk about them again.

I haven’t read it yet, but I saw recently that renowned media strategist, Peter Houston, has written a new guide about them and monetising content through them. I know Peter, so I know also that his guide will be full of valuable insight and well worth purchasing (he is a terrific digital media analyst). But I did chuckle wryly when I saw it for the first time, as it seemed to me that we’ve come full circle.

Yep, paywalls appear to be all the rage again, as they were nearly ten years ago when I used to manage digital strategy on the Autosport brand (one of the first specialist media brands globally to really make digital content profitable via a successful web paywall).

The thing about paywalls, which I’ve learned from experience, is that they will not likely work unless you follow seven golden rules, which – starting with the most obvious but also the most difficult to attain – are:

1) Content. Your target audience must be of the opinion your digital content is worth paying for. That is to say, it should be unique – penned by journalists or analysts with an expertise that can’t be found for free easily anywhere else.

2) Communication. Paywalls are like front covers of magazines – they need to sell your proposition in seconds. How they do that is vital, so you need the best front-end design you have available.

3) Testing. Continually AB and multi-variate test the most successful front-end paywall layouts to maximise conversion. Find out what the optimal price is and frequency of payment. Having an optimisation specialist in your ranks is a real advantage. You’ll soon see that even the smallest alterations to layout, wording, colour and pricing can make significant differences to revenues accrued

4) Simplicity. Make it as easy as possible to sign up and pay, with continuous payments, with a mobile-optimised / device responsive UX.

5) Marketing. Market it like crazy, report and continually attribute to see what marketing campaigns are most effective.

6) Sampling. Always offer free access to limited content as a sample to drive conversion. This is an absolute no-brainer. Would you pay for something you can’t see?

7) Reward. Why not take a risk and promote loyalty by saying, as long as a user’s subscription automatically renews, they’ll never pay more for it (a bit more contentious, this one, but it worked brilliantly on Autosport when I was there – though made reporting and budgeting a nightmare!).

Get those seven rules implemented and operating correctly and you’ll have half a chance. You need to research, innovate, invest, take a risk and do it properly. Going off half-cocked and experimenting half-heartedly with paywalls will result in one thing: failure. And worse, the possibly incorrect conclusion based on inaccurate data that “paywalls don’t work for us, we’ve tried it”.

Like I said, I’ve not read Peter’s new guide, but I’ll bet he goes into far more detail on all the above than I ever could in this column. I’ll be putting my order in when I get home.

And I’ll also lay a bet that he won’t be selling many copies here in Andros. In fact, over here, I doubt anyone will even know what a paywall is. But that suits me just fine. Having a break from digital – a digi-detox, if you like – is what everyone working in digital should do, regularly. Now, how on earth do I find some wi-fi to submit this piece? Ummm…