Whether you should put content behind a paywall is a serious consideration for any online content provider. While they can provide a welcome source of income away from advertisements, paywalls tend to alienate audiences and impact customer retention if they're not implemented carefully.
But despite their drawbacks, paywalls aren't inherently bad. With the right paywall strategy and careful planning, you can set one up that strengthens your relationship with customers, while improving the strength of your brand and adding a source of stable revenue for your business.
In this guide, we'll look at the types of paywall, best practices, and how you can successfully implement one for your own business.
Put simply, a paywall is a way to block access to content. It hides media (audio, video or written) behind a digital 'wall' that can only be bypassed after the visitor pays a fee or purchases a subscription.
We've all experienced paywalls on the web. The most obvious example is newspapers, magazines and digital news websites like The Washington Post or The New Yorker, which give access to subscribers only. They're also we have to thank for paywalls in the first place.
Since their inception, paywalls have become a popular business model for digital publishers. They offer an alternative to an advertisement-driven revenue model, freeing up media producers to focus on providing quality for their customer base, rather than producing content that attracts the highest number of clicks.
Digital journalism, content and storytelling remain the most common pieces of media to place behind a paywall. This includes everything from short stories in a literary magazine to news features from The New York Times.
Though it's important to note that paywalls refer to much more than just newspaper articles. A paywall involves restricting access to a page or a download, which means, technically speaking, any digital product can be put behind a paywall.
The key? Whatever you hide behind a paywall must be worth paying for. This means, whether it's a podcast, a piece of writing or a video, it must have a certain quality that elevates it beyond everything else in the vast ocean of internet content.
Paywalls fall within two distinct categories: hard and soft. Both categories refer to the different levels of access offered, with "soft" paywalls offering more control over how content is distributed and accessed.
A hard paywall blocks access to all content on a website until visitors pay. There may be a short summary or teaser available to view, but that's all. This model is rare, with only around 3% of news organisations using it (according to a Reuters Institute poll).
Typically, hard paywalls are only used by high-quality websites with established brands and large audiences, like The Wall Street Journal.
This type of paywall is more commonly used for selling digital products online. For example, a marketer might offer free blog posts on their website, but keep an ebook locked behind a hard paywall.
Soft paywalls (otherwise known as leaky or porous paywalls) are a model that only enforces paid barriers conditionally. They are much less rigid and give you several different options.
Here's a quick overview of the paywall models:
|Types of Paywall||Blocks all content.||Blocks content conditionally.||Free access to some content; others are blocked.||First few visits are free, then visitors must pay.||Amount of free visits is adjusted based on visitors’ profiles.|
Critics of paywalls claim they run counter to the original intent of the internet. That everything should be free and accessible by anyone. What that view doesn't take into account is that great content takes time and effort to produce.
Content producers of any type—whether it's a huge news corporation or a freelancer selling recipes on their personal website—should be able to make money from their work without having to rely on clickbait and ads.
The good news is that people are starting to appreciate this. And they're willing to pay for content they value. So if you're worried about whether a paywall is the right payment model for you, here are some of the benefits doing so can provide.
If you can manage to build a loyal readership that's willing to pay to access your site's content, it can be a huge boost for your bottom line.
No longer will you have to solely rely on advertisements or other income channels. You'll have people who come directly to your business to provide regular, predictable income via a paid subscription model.
And guess what? Dedicated subscribers can actually make you more attractive to advertisers and other companies looking for brand collaborations. A smaller, loyal community of customers is much more valuable than a random selection of visitors you happen to draw in each month.
There is a perception that sites with content behind a paywall tend to be of higher quality than those without one. It tells visitors that what you offer has value beyond every other blog and website on the internet. That you have something special.
In most circumstances this is the case. However, it's up to you as a content creator to understand this and ensure that the content you're offering is actually worth the cost. If not, you risk alienating customers and actually damaging your brand.
Sports site The Athletic is the prime example of how brands can be build upon quality gated content. The site launched in 2016 as the antithesis of existing sports reporting, promising no ads, no clickbait, and no reliance on corporate sponsors. Just in-depth, original articles written by the best sportswriters in the field.
"Without the pressure of generating clicks or meeting arbitrary deadlines, The Athletic’s editorial team is doing the best work of their careers."
The catch? Unlike the thousands of sports blogs and websites on the internet it would cost $60 a year. Pundits thought it was doomed to fail, but The Athletic trusted their vision and instinct that customers were looking for a better solution.
Five years later, they're are profitable, boasting 600,000 subscribers and, crucially, a reputation as the best provider of sports analysis on the planet.
An active group of paying subscribers does more than provide revenue. It creates a community of loyal consumers of your content. The more loyal customers are, the more they are to engage with what you create and spend money with your business.
This idea was explored and popularised by Kevin Kelly, the founding editor of Wired Magazine, in his essay "1,000 True Fans". Kelly's posed that to be a successful creator you don't need millions of dollars, customers or fans—you need just 1,000 'true' fans.
"These diehard fans will drive 200 miles to see you sing," writes Kelly. "They will buy the hardback and paperback and audible versions of your book; they will purchase your next figurine sight unseen; they will pay for the “best-of” DVD version of your free youtube channel."
"If you have roughly a thousand of true fans like this (also known as super fans), you can make a living." — Kevin Kelly
A paywall can be your ticket to cultivating your 1,000 true fans. All you need to do is make sure you're producing worthy content and start cultivating your community.
A paywall is undoubtedly useful as both a marketing tool and revenue generator, but hurdles do exist. Knowing what they are before you commit will help determine if a paywall strategy is the right way to go.
Understanding what your audience expects from your content is critical. Are they willing to pay for content? Are they of a demographic that has disposable income? Have you already set an expectation that content should be free?
Do some research to make sure you don't alienate your existing customer base. The last thing you want is to implement a paywall and lose your core community. From there, you need to consider what you can offer that's valuable for them.
Recognising your customer pain points can be a shortcut to figuring out what content they will pay for. You don't have to guess—consider distributing a survey for to better understand the kind of content they'll find worthwhile.
We've said it before and we'll say it again. Your content must be worth paying for. You can't just put together a blog post in fifteen minutes, slap a paywall over it and then expect people to spend their hard-earned cash. That's not how paywalls work.
"If someone offered you a free burger you wouldn't think much of it would you? By the same token, if someone said their burger was $25 you would expect the best burger you've ever eaten. That same principle applies for paywalled content."
By putting up a paywall you're declaring that your content is worth paying for. You are freeing yourself from the existential prison of generating content for clicks and trying to write for Google over humans.
That means you have to go above and beyond what's out there. What exactly that means depends on the industry you're in and the kind of content you're creating.
For a journalist it might mean getting unique interviews and doing original research, while for your company it might mean spending the time to share actionable insights from your journey. Value means different things to different audiences.
Putting up a paywall means you are placing a barrier between your consumer and your content. Even with an incredible amount of quality content behind that paywall, you could see the traffic to your site drop.
Don't worry. This is a side effect of the '1,000 true fans' theory that we touched on earlier. And if it does happen, you'll be in excellent company. Major news sites like Bloomberg and The New York Times saw readership decrease after going behind a paywall.
However, after the initial decline, subscriptions increased and readership numbers stabilised. Ultimately, it provided these publications with a more consistent, reliable stream of revenue. In many cases (as with The New York Times), they ended up earning more than what they drew from advertising dollars.
The bottom line: traffic drops can be severe and scary. But this is made up for by a smaller group of loyal customers that are more engaged and likely to pay.
Social media is largely dependent on free, shareable content. A large part of content marketing is ensuring what you produce can be easily shared by readers on sites like Twitter, Reddit or Facebook. Hard paywalls can get in the way of that.
This isn't to say your content is going to be invisible. But because your content isn't freely available, the John or Jane Does who come across it on social media can be a bit rather cynical about it.
These kinds of reactions are par for the course when you have a paywall. Some people just won't want to pay for what you're producing. That's okay. That's life. That's why it's called 1,000 true fans not "everyone on Twitter is fans of my stuff".
If you're using a hard paywall consider using social media to add value of another kind. Can you share snippets from your articles or videos? Add to the conversation around your niche? Use these platforms as a way to establish your expertise?
It can be a bit of extra work for you—but just because you're using a paywall doesn't mean social media loses its value. You just need to use it in a different way.
Paywalls live and die by the execution. The golden rules are to make the payment options clear and the 'wall' itself as unobtrusive as possible. Beyond that, the usual principles of design apply.
We've mentioned a few paywalls in passing throughout this article. But to help give you a clearer idea, we've put together a few paywalls that are particularly well done.
The Financial Times implements a dynamic paywall to great success. They reached the milestone of one million paper and digital subscriptions in 2019, which is down to their solid reputation for high-quality journalism.
Their paywall prompts visitors for payment around their seventh visit. By then they have established the user is interested in the content they're providing, and perhaps a good candidate for a subscription.
The Athletic's pricing page is a great example of a simple, barebones paywall. Notice how they use a clear headline and copy that highlights that main draw cards: ad-freeDF, no pop-ups and stories written by experts.
Interestingly, their soft paywall allows visitors to read a sizeable amount of a single article before being cut off (around 200 words). This is a great way to give potential users a true look at the quality of the writing—as well as getting them hooked—before asking them to subscribe.
This pop-up on The Telegraph's website looks more like a work of art than a paywall. The UK-based newspaper has a hard paywall, but offers a generous free trial as well as a major discount for new subscribers.
Visitors can also register with their email adress for free access for 24 hours. This is a smart tactic to engage with people who may have followed a link on social media, or come across an article on search engines. The emphasis here is on giving visitors a chance to 'try before they buy'.
You might not think of Netflix and other streaming services as having paywalls but they most certainly do. Netflix has a hard paywall over thousands of movies and TV shows that users can subscribe to get access to.
Streaming services are actually an interesting case study of meeting customer needs and creating value. In particular, they're masters of using customer data to ensure they're adding content to the platform that resonates with their core audience.
Whether you're selling an ebook, collecting memberships for a podcast or wanting to hide articles behind a pop-up, Paperform empowers you to set up a paywall and start collecting payments in just a matter of minutes.
Start from scratch or get started faster with our library of over 600 templates. Need a landing page to sell an ebook? To embed a pop-up on your existing website? To share exclusive digital content with email sign-ups? Whatever the answer, we have you covered.
With our native features you can:
No ugly interfaces. No subscription problems. No commissions to pay to third-party platforms. Just add your digital files or links, connect your favourite payment processor and starting growing your customer base.
Don't have an eye for accounting? That's alright. Receipts and taxes are generated automatically and we don't take extra fees because we think your money is exactly that—your money.
On top of that, we've got more than 3,000 Direct and Zapier integrations so you can connect to your favourite apps. From Google Sheets to Notion; Mailchimp to Active Campaign; keep track of your subscribers and send data where you need it.
Paperform is the complete paywall solution. Ready to build a beautiful paywall that can be customised to your unique brand? Sign up for our 14-day free trial today—no credit card required.
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