Pay for Play: Why Putting Your Content Behind a Paywall Is the Right Move For Your Website

/ marketing
Stephen Altrogge

To paywall or not to paywall? That is indeed the question.

Whether or not to add a paywall to your website is a serious consideration for any online content provider. Certainly, a paywall can prove a viable source of income - just ask any number of online news sites that are making a move to subscription-based service.

But is it viable for your online efforts and revenue strategy?

Is the potential revenue worth some of the drawbacks that come with monetizing your content?

Let’s take a look at the paywall, what it is and how it works, and see if it’s for you.

What is a Paywall?

In the simplest terms, paywalls regulate access to specific content, only allowing views after a user pays a fee or purchases a subscription to unlock the restricted content.

Paywalls mostly came about due to the exodus of readers from print newspapers to online sources. To keep their news organizations afloat, media companies promoted online subscriptions versus physical ones.

For a time, paywalls were limited in scope and sparsely used across industries that could still bank on advertising for revenue. Once the advertising itself became volatile, paywalls - and more sophisticated variations of them - began making a comeback.

So while the name and purpose may be straightforward, there’s plenty to consider when determining if a paywall is right for your content.

Types of Paywalls

Paywalls fall within two distinct categories - hard and soft. Both concepts are relatively easy to understand although the soft version provides more control over how a user accesses content.

Let’s take a quick look at both:

Hard Paywall

As the name implies, a hard paywall places either all or most of your content behind a pay screen. A user cannot view this content unless they purchase a subscription.

In some instances, the title and subheadings of an article or similar content are visible to the user (and in a few cases, an opening paragraph) before they see a prompt to subscribe.

Typically, you'll find hard paywalls at highly trafficked media or institutional websites such as The Wall Street Journal.

Smaller sites reserve hard paywalls for premium or exclusive content. In other words, the most valuable stuff it produces.

Soft Paywall

The soft paywall is much less rigid and provides a couple of different options in how to administer it.

First, is a metered paywall. This allows users free access to a certain number of articles before being prompted to subscribe.

For example, news site allows non-paying subscribers ten free articles every month before they are directed to a paywall to purchase ongoing access for the remainder of the month or longer.

The second type of soft paywall is freemium. Here, some content is free, and other material requires a subscription or fee.

An example of this approach is at, and portions of its premium content.

Upon visiting the site, much of sports coverage and reporting is free for anyone to view. However, for deep dive articles or specific insights from their sports experts you’d have to subscribe to a special package to unlock it.

Paywall Benefits

Although some critics of paywalls claim they run counter to the original intent of the internet, there’s little doubt that great content takes time and effort to produce. You as a generator of that content should also be able to generate income from it.

The good news is a lot of users are more than willing to pay you for it.

So while it may be a tough decision to take that next step of providing fee-based content, there are plenty of reasons to do so.

Consistent Revenue

If you build a loyal readership willing to pay to access either all or some of your site’s content, it can be a huge boost for your bottom line. This works in two distinct ways.

One way is the influx of subscription revenue, though it provides more than just earnings. Building a subscription base also means you are creating a base of repeat customers. A strong base of paying users is attractive to advertisers. Consumers who pay for content spend more time on the page or website, and advertisers love a captive audience.

You can charge higher ad rates and draw in higher quality companies that want to reach the (paying) community you’ve built.

Better Reputation

Not all free sites are bad and by the same token, not all subscription sites are good.

With that said, there is a perception that sites with content behind a paywall tend to be of higher quality than those without. It tells a user that what you offer is valuable and is not something they can find just anywhere.

You as the content creator play a significant role in maintaining the quality as well as cultivating a solid reputation. Understanding the built-in perception that paid sites carry will help you capitalize on their status.

Strong Consumer Base

We touched on this briefly with the revenue angle of repeat customers and attractiveness to advertisers. However, an active group of paying users does more than provide revenue. They create a network.

That organically grown community will cast you as an influencer who produces valuable content that’s worth paying for. Inevitably, this leads to your audience referring other, like-minded individuals back to your site.

It also opens up additional opportunities for you to both grow your reach and plant your influence into other spheres.

Paywall Drawbacks

A paywall is undoubtedly useful as both a marketing tool and revenue generator, but hurdles do exist. Knowing what they are before you commit to a paywall will help determine if its a good idea for your site.

Content Must Be Worth Paying For

It's a common refrain you’ve heard time and time again - quality content is vital in having a high ranking and well-received website.

When you take the step of putting that contact behind a paywall, its needs be to phenomenal, valuable to your audience, and most importantly, unique.

It’s easy to find generic content all over the web without paying for it.

Users know that.

Something else they recognize is when time and effort goes into to creating something they enjoy consuming. Translation: you might have to invest more in what you're producing to convince people to subscribe.

The good news is that the greater the investment, the higher the potential reward. If you ensure what’s behind your paywall carries value, people will pay for it.

Traffic Could Decrease

Putting up a paywall means you are placing a barrier between your consumer and your content. Even with an incredible amount of quality behind that paywall, you could see the traffic to your site drop.

Should that happen, you’d be in excellent company.

Many major news sites like Bloomberg, the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times and regional providers such as Dallas News and the Memphis Commercial Appeal all saw readership decreases after going behind a paywall.

However, after the initial decline, subscriptions increased and readership numbers stabilized. Ultimately, it provided them with a consistent, more reliable stream of revenue, and in many cases ended up outpacing what they drew from advertising dollars.

Shares of Your Content Will Also Decrease

Our social media-driven society is dependent upon free, shareable content. Whether it's through an interesting news article, a funny gif, or, of course, the ubiquitous cat video, much of our online interaction is through shares.

In limiting your content to behind a paywall, you remove this element of social networking. Paid content is less likely to be shared.

Also remember, that sharing and backlinking have a positive impact on SEO. Should you add a paywall, ensure you have a plan in place to account for the potential demotion from search engines.

Making a Paywall Work For You

We’ve explored what a paywall is, the different types, and the pros and cons of having one. So what does it take to ensure yours is effective?

Know Your Audience

This seems like a no-brainer, but understanding what your audience expects from your content in general - and what they are willing and unwilling to pay for specifically - is vital to a successful paywall strategy.

You must also know your appeal versus other sites that present a similar approach to yours. If your focus is more specialized, such as being dedicated to a singular topic or industry, heavily promote and distinguish it.

An audience is more likely to pay for materials that they feel is unique and valuable to them and worthy of their dollars. Recognizing what moves your target base will easily justify a paywall strategy for your content. Consider creating and distributing a survey for your existing audience to better understand their stance.

Generate Great Content on Both Sides of the Wall

To entice non-payers into content subscribers, offer excellent content in front of the paywall.

After building trust and feeding them your good stuff for free, their willingness to pay for access to your best stuff increases.

Another approach, particularly if your content encompasses ebooks, courses, or similarly “chaptered”  materials is offer the first few sections for free.  The remaining portions then are accessed through the paywall.

A variation on this includes freely providing new content and setting older material behind a paywall, or vice versa.

It's worth cautioning that both scenarios will upset a few folks - those who demand everything online be free. However, if what you create is compelling, relevant, or helpful, people will pay for the full experience.

Do Not Boilerplate Your Paywall

We’ve talked a lot about content and how it's critical to ensuring a successful paywall strategy. So too is how you present the paywall.

Whether you take the approach of a modal window or landing page to reflect that material is subscription only, it needs to appeal specifically to your audience.

Avoid language that makes it appear they clicked the wrong link. Use copy that appeals to your audience's senses. Also make sure that your landing page forms are responsive across all devices, so the experience isn't jarring for mobile phone or tablet users.

Remember, you want to entice a user to subscribe, not dissuade them from it.

Create an interface that summarizes the benefits of what you offer and how it's of interest to them.  

Also, don’t be afraid to incentivize. People love to feel special, and nothing does that better than a discount or free trial.

If you get them hooked on your content, they will come back for more.

Just remember to keep it short, sweet, visually appealing and easy to move on to the next step.

Make Your Paywall Clear and User-Friendly

Easy to Find. Easy to Understand. Easy to Pay.

Creating something inviting isn’t just about how it looks, but also how it feels.

Like any landing page, you will want to highlight the call to action to subscribe, and then ensure that each step is equally as easy to navigate. This includes clearly defined pricing options or tiers and a simple payment portal. Make sure that your subscription forms not only look secure but are also inviting from a visual standpoint.

For those that have already subscribed, you will also want to give them clear direction of where to access the site, especially if they click on paid content before logging in.

Final Thoughts

Moving to a paywall strategy is a big step for your web presence. Understanding the good and the bad that comes with the move is vital to deciding if it's right for you.
Should you move forward, develop a clear strategy and goals for what you want to provide your paying users and what you hope to gain in return.

Paywalls are indeed making a comeback. Give your audience something valuable and something that’s worth paying for, and your Shakespearean story will be a feel-good one.

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