It's no wonder that getting visitors who encounter paywalls to convert is a tough challenge for digital publishers. After all, the difficulty is right there in the name: a paywall is an explicit barrier to entry (a wall) that can only be cleared by parting with hard-earned money (by paying).
The fact that paywalls demand audiences commit both effort and spend means the approach will never be easy: publishers must consistently do the hard work of delivering valuable experiences at fair prices in order for there to be even a chance of success.
Still, while a significant amount of a paywall's efficacy is determined by cost and content quality, there are also a number of additional things that can be done to improve performance.
Specifically, publishers of all sizes can optimize their paywalls and increase conversions by taking these six key steps:
1. Focus on Data and Understand Your Audience
Effective paywall optimization begins with having the right data and then utilizing it correctly.
Many of the proven tactics for boosting conversions, such as dynamic triggering, can only be executed effectively if you have a rich view into what's happening in real-time on your site and how various approaches are (or aren't) working.
Most importantly, you need to know your audience. Only by understanding who they are and what they want can you deliver the messaging that is most likely to spur conversion. That's why starting with insights such as topic interests and engagement quality (which are provided by tools such as our powerful NativeAI audience analytics platform) is the foundation for success.
2. Get all of your teams in sync
When working on paywall optimization many publishers rush right into experimenting with different approaches without first taking an important step: getting their teams on the same page.
That's a huge mistake. Paywalls are challenging in part because they require coordination among so many different groups — Editorial, Marketing, Audience Development, Business Development, Sales, etc. — in order to succeed.
To ensure that your approaches are effective, it's necessary to focus on processes, communication, and responsibilities before tackling specific tactics. In the long run, consistently improving conversions will only be possible if your teams are in sync.
3. Optimize when your Paywall appears
Once you've got all your data and teams in good shape it's time to dive into the nitty-gritty of conversion tactics.
A good place to start is by optimizing when your paywall appears.
While a hard metered paywall — one that is always triggered after a set number pieces of free content are consumed — requires the least effort, the most effective approach tends to be a dynamic paywall.
The Wall Street Journal has pioneered this strategy and now has a flexible paywall that is triggered by a host of signals, including history, tenure, location, device use, and content interests. Essentially, it treats each visitor as a unique lead and delivers the paywall at the exact moment that is most likely to result in a conversion.
4. Make Your Paywall Less of a Wall
While hitting a paywall will always annoy a visitor, you can take steps to limit the level of annoyance.
How? In part by making the wall feel like less of a wall.
This can be done in a number of ways. Some organizations, such as WIRED, gently remind visitors a few articles ahead of time that they are going to encounter the paywall.
Others, such as The Washington Post, convey that crossing the paywall is meaningful and that the outlet is delivering value ("A subscription supports journalism that matters").
The key is to lessen the impact and make the experience less jarring. Fundamentally, if people know what's coming and if they understand a publisher's motivations, they are less likely to begrudge a paywall.
5. Don't Try to Have Your Cake and Eat It Too
Over the past few years many digital publishers have adopted a hybrid approach, turning to a combination subscriptions and advertising for revenue.
While this may make good business sense, it's important to remember that it's not ideal for audiences. For many visitors, seeing a site filled with ads ask for a subscription feels strange. This is especially true if the ads make the experience noticeably worse by overtaking pages and/or slowing load times.
Most people won't begrudge ads if they're getting content for free. However, they become much more aware — and displeased — if they're being asked to pay. Given that, publishers should avoid trying to have their cake and eat it too: if a paywall prompt is coming then don't overload a visitor with ads as well.
6. Make It Easy
Finally, if there's one magic bullet for improving paywall conversion rates, it's this: make the experience easy.
Keep in mind that most visitors are pressed for time and hesitant to commit to spending money on content. So, if your can make the sign-up process quick and uncomplicated, you are much more likely to garner subscriptions.
How can you make the experience easier? One way is to make your offers simple to understand while also providing options for different audiences. An example of this is The Economist, which gives visitors two clear tracks when they hit the paywall: subscribe at the promotional rate (currently $12 for 12 weeks) or create a free login to get three articles a month for free.
Another element is to optimize the sign-up process. This can include one-click payment options, pre-filled user login details, and other offerings that save time as well as effort.
The goal is to make your paywall as painless as possible. This starts by laying the right foundation — understanding your visitors and getting your teams in sync — then optimizing when your paywall appears, how it is displayed, what ad load accompanies it, and which elements can be simplified. Ultimately, by tackling each of those elements you can limit the negative effects of a paywall and significantly improve conversions.
Related reading: Considering a paywall? Here's what you need to know.