When Readers Block Paywalls
Since the first paywall went up twenty-something years ago, paywalls have been hailed as the savior of digital publishing. They’ve also been accused of “killing” digital publishing. Go ahead, add that to the list of things killed by millennials.
Now, with paywalls entering their third decade, so too do paywall workarounds. As soon as the first paywall went up, readers began the search for ways over, around, and through these walls. Publishers closed paywall loopholes, only for readers to find (or even create) new ones, leading to an arms race between the readers seeking free content and the publishers seeking the means to create it.
Are publishers doomed to continue this back-and-forth forever? Maybe not. Rather than working towards a tighter paywall, publishers may find that it pays off to focus on building paying audiences. Let’s take a quick look at past paywall workarounds, recent developments in the paywall blocking arms race, and what publishers can do in the future.
A History of Paywall Workarounds and Publisher Responses
Publishers have tightened and tweaked paywall settings over time, but on the whole, the industry has settled on metered paywalls as the paid content model of choice.
As metered walls became the norm, readers sought ways to stretch the meter. Readers doubled, tripled, quadrupled their allotted articles by switching devices. Until Google ended its “first click free” policy, readers skirted meter limits entirely by searching for an article’s title.
Incognito/private browsing also allowed readers to reset their meter with ease, of course, until publishers started implementing ways to detect incognito browsers. Once detection is in place, publishers can remind incognito users of the value proposition, encourage them to subscribe to an email newsletter, or prevent them from accessing any content until they return to regular browsing mode.
Some publishers have taken more drastic measures, ditching the metered paywall in favor of hard paywalls that cut off access to all content unless readers pay up. Of course, not every publisher can put up a hard wall. Without a longstanding history (like the Financial Times) or a reputation for differentiated quality content (such as The Information), you’re unlikely to convert new subscribers if they can’t sample content first.
But could new browser extensions extend this content sampling period indefinitely?
A Paywall-Blocking Browser Extension?
Earlier this year, the Reuters Institute predicted a future of paywall blockers, and as Digiday reported last week, the future—or at least a preview of it—is here:
For now, these extensions will be used by a tiny, tech-savvy fraction of your audience. But then what? Will we see a parallel of the ad blocking arms race, with publishers thwarting browser extensions and new extensions taking their place ad infinitum? Not quite:
“Fundamentally, I think this is a very different proposition to ad blockers,” said Cecilia Campbell, a consultant for the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers. “With advertising, your revenue comes equally from loyal visitors and fly-bys; all clicks are equal. With healthy user relationships in parallel with developing relevant personalized content, users are less likely to block paywalls.”
Even if paywall blockers catch on, unlike ad blockers, they’re not necessarily cutting you off from revenue. In fact, what may feel like lost revenue from paywall blockers can provide an opportunity for greater reader revenue.
How Publishers Can Handle Paywall Blockers
Ultimately, readers who block paywalls are highly unlikely to pay for content anyway. Had they been unable to block your content, they wouldn’t have subscribed; they would have simply gone elsewhere.
In the meantime, paywall-blocking readers see your content. They learn the value of that content. And if they decide to keep reading your content, a relationship develops. As Campbell notes, a strong relationship may convince these readers to pay up anyway.
Here are 4 ways to drive revenue in an internet of paywall blockers:
1. Use dynamic paywalls to convert people who will pay. While the right paywall configuration won’t necessarily help you avoid paywall blockers, a paywall that adapts to your audience may nudge more readers to become paying subscribers.
2. Connect with visitors via email. PubExec points out that newsletters “are inherent traffic-builders and brand-reinforcers, with direct ways to monetize.” While you’re driving in-email revenue, you can also deliver content directly to your audience, including targeted marketing messaging that may nurture readers closer to a subscription.
3. Show why your content is worth paying for. Ultimately, readers won’t pay unless they see value in your content. With a direct link to your audience, you have a way to demonstrate this value over time. In some cases, readers who typically turn to paywall workarounds may pay up just to support your mission, particularly if you offer investigative journalism or issue-oriented content.
4. Provide additional value in your paid product. With more and more publishers behind the paywall, you have to differentiate yourself. For some publishers, that means tote bags. For others, it may be exclusive events, early access to events, subscriber-only content, or other products. Publishers like the Washington Post and Financial Times have even spun out popular newsletters into their own events. Regardless of the revenue route you take, it’s easier if you have reader relationships first.
Editor, PostUp PlayBook