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digital audience engagement

Paywalls and crunchy frogs: marketing lessons from Whizzo Chocolates

22 May 2012 · by Steve Nilan

As more and more newspapers jump on the bandwagon to monetise digital content, the newsmedia industry should come up with a more palatable term than "paywall."

Paywalls are proliferating across the digital media landscape. Last month, the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism reported approximately 150 U.S. dailies now have some form of digital subscription service. The metered model has emerged as the clear winner.

At the recent INMA World Congress in Los Angeles, we heard Paul Smurl, vice president for paid products at The New York Times, describe how the Times’ risky paywall launch has now paid off with more than 450,000 digital subscribers in just a year. The added bonus was the satisfaction of being vindicated after the “blistering criticism” from media pundits. The Times’ breakthrough success has emboldened the company to lower the threshold of free articles and inspired others to get in the game.

Publishers around the globe have taken notice and are building their own paywalls brick-by-digital-brick. In one year, news media companies have moved from widespread skepticism to a stampeding herd.

The growing success of paywall strategies brings with it some branding baggage. The ill-conceived and widely despised term “paywall” has taken hold as the universal industry buzzword for digital subscriptions. Can’t we find a better word?! Paywall may be an accurate term, but it is about as consumer-friendly as Whizzo Chocolates’  Crunchy Frog candy.

Remember the classic Monty Python Crunchy Frog sketch? John Cleese as the officious food inspector is shocked that Whizzo’s proprietor is proud of his authentic Crunchy Frog recipe. “Oh, we use only the finest baby frogs, dew-picked and flown from Iraq, cleansed in the finest quality spring water, lightly killed, and sealed in a succulent, Swiss, quintuple-smooth, treble-milk chocolate envelope, and lovingly frosted with glucose!” The truth is sometimes hard to digest.

Paywall is simply a convenient word that describes a product-pricing strategy. Words matter in the marketing department, not just the newsroom. This is a clear marketing opportunity in an industry with a tendency toward self-flagellation rather than self-promotion. Newsroom layoffs are featured as front-page news, while digital successes are buried. Jim Chisholm observed in his presentation at the World Congress that newspapers spend less than 1% of revenue on marketing. His advice to newspapers was to “get out there and brand our medium with confidence.”

What if we tapped into the brilliant minds within the INMA community to come up with a more consumer-friendly term than paywall? I know INMA members have the influence to make a new word stick. As a starting point, Paul Smurl suggested “paygate,” since it is a gateway to content. For our paywall software, we have toyed around with the word “value,” as in value-meter or value-measure.

What other ideas do you have? We can at least do better than Crunchy Frog, can’t we?

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