Is Fake News Fatigue Reviving the Subscription Paywall for Publishers?

By NativeAI / May 15, 2018

With the rise of "fake news", audiences are constantly questioning the credibility of breaking stories. Studies show that on average, nearly 63% of people worldwide can no longer tell the difference between quality journalism and fake news. The fake news phenomenon has real-world consequences. However, it's also provided a golden opportunity for reputable publishers.

Audiences are increasingly prioritizing high-quality content, and they're even willing to pay for it. Although putting up a paywall hasn't been, and still may not be, the best way to monetize, audiences are becoming more receptive to it.

Effective paywalls can provide opportunities for revenue growth and audience development. Rather than competing with fake news outlets and cutting through the noise, editors can focus on providing subscribers with the high-quality content they crave.

This approach can be a game-changer for publishers.

How Fake News Fatigue Fuels Subscription Publishing

Similar to the rise and fall of clickbait, readers are now tired of inauthentic and inaccurate content. Outlets like Facebook and Twitter, where many people get their news, are combatting junk content by dramatically adjusting their algorithms to identify and penalize disingenuous news sources. However, given that it's free to utilize these channels, people can continue to post and inundate social platforms with poor or inaccurate content.

That's the value in the paid subscription publishing model.

Readers feel they can trust the value of the content, because they're paying for it, and getting it from a reputable source. The Wall Street Journal, for example, has a long-standing paywall and uses that barrier to market the quality and value of their content. Rather than marketing to free readers, The Journal focuses on developing a strong, loyal following.


Using data.

The Journal uses an innovative subscription prediction model, which helps them target even more potential subscribers through reader data. Their machine learning utilizes up to 60 signals to indicate the likelihood that a reader will become a paid subscriber. The technology then calculates a "propensity score," assessing various metrics such as whether or not they're a first-time reader, their geographic location, and their device.

By putting their data to work, The Journal crafts their marketing message to resonate with the most qualified potential readers. And it works! The WSJ now has more than 1,389,000 digital subscribers.

Successful implementation of a subscription model can also improve print sales. The world’s oldest weekly magazine in the United Kingdom, The Spectator, announced the highest sales in its 190-year history, by using digital content sampling to drive print-digital subscription sales up 11% year-over-year.

A lot of other publications are following suit by employing artificial intelligence analytics tools and focusing on data-driven strategies and subscription-based publishing. The New York Times, Mother Jones, and Slate, for example, are all marketing the quality of their content to drive more subscription revenue.

The Desire for Quality

A paywall is only effective with strong, interesting, and accurate content behind it.

Publishers need to sustain their paid subscribers with an onslaught of interesting and high-caliber content. Reputable publishers like Forbes and The Huffington Post that once welcomed free contributor content are taking huge strides to ensure that their content is exceptional.

Forbes, who once attributed 60% of their monthly content to free contributors, is now purging underperforming writers by cutting the weakest 10% of contributors every year.

The HuffPost, known for their long-standing, unpaid contributor program, recently discontinued it in an effort to decrease the amount of ineffective content or unreliable material.

As a publisher, the commitment to providing only exceptional material and implement a subscription model could be an answer to the advertising dilemma. However, before putting up a paywall, there are a few key components to keep in mind:

Subscription-Based Publishing Considerations

Current Percentage of Loyal Readers

To run a subscription program, you need dedicated readers. Highly engaged readers are already invested in your content, so they're prime candidates for subscriptions. If you have a low number of returning readers, the focus should be on growing that audience before putting up a paywall. Publishers can start by studying reader engagement using an audience insights tool, and leverage the findings to adjust and enhance their content strategies.

Potential Decrease in Readers

Given that a majority of publishers still rely heavily on ad revenue, it merits caution before jumping to a subscription-only model. If readers aren't invested in your content, they may not respond well to a subscription paywall. If the content isn’t valuable enough in their mind, they will just find other sources to visit.

The Right Subscription Model

There are a few subscription models to choose from. About 62% of publishers utilize a metered subscription model, which provides readers with a designated amount of articles every month.

Freemium subscription models aren't as popular with publishers, with only a few publications, like Shortlist utilizing them. This model provides free content to readers, with premium content pieces behind paywalls.

The Hardwall, used by The Wall Street Journal, only allows readers to access a few paragraphs of text before prompting them to sign up for a subscription.

Another option is establishing a partnership, similar to the one between Amazon Prime and The Washington Post. Amazon Prime members can subscribe to The Washington Post for free for six months.

The Secret to Successful Subscription Publishing

With fake news fatigue and a desire for quality rising at the same time advertising revenues are falling, now is the most opportune time to adopt a subscription publishing model. Advertising revenue at The New York Times is down $20 million annually, and even top digital publishers such as Buzzfeed and Vice are projected to miss revenue targets by 20%. Slowly but surely, publishers being forced to loosen their reliance on advertising, and finding new ways to developing relationships with readers through data.

That's how subscription publishing, and an exceptional understanding of your reader, can help magazines, online media outlets, and digital publications recoup lost ad revenue. Subscription models can enable publishers to deliver the personalized, customized experience readers are seeking. This requires the right subscription model, and a deep understanding of your audience, as well as audience insight tools, such as NativeAI to get started.

In our free Audience Insights Course, we show editorial teams how to utilize our real-time dashboard to access reader data. The course equips publishers with the insight and direction needed to start assessing the behavior of return readers and effectively growing and sustaining a large, loyal community of followers. 

Also read: Our recap of an event focused on Digital Subscriptions - DMNA18

How to Extract Actionable Publishing Insights From Deep Audience Data

Written by NativeAI / May 15, 2018