Overview of this campaign
Last year, the Winnipeg Free Press saw its biggest digital evolution to date with the launch of our innovative paywall – and with it came a new wave of information on our readers’ desires, habits, needs and demands. We knew we had to be smarter about what we were presenting to our readers, and how. We would need to understand almost immediately which areas of our business required additional investment so we could maximize our resources. We also wanted to use the opportunity to give appropriate exposure to the hundreds of pieces of content that were going largely unseen for so long.
Our previous website was curated and compartmentalized, which would often bury everything from book reviews, restaurant reviews, the most recent curling news – even our wealth of celebrity news (few want to admit it, but the numbers don’t lie: Celebrities sell). So our new paywall depended on a sophisticated content recommendation engine to surface exactly what the readers wanted, when they wanted it and were willing to pay for it. It was necessary information, of course, but not the easiest to get – we knew there would be resistance to these new barriers to access and new system of tracking readers’ usage habits. Forget getting readers to pay – how would we get users to bother signing up without raising their ire? Our solution was to start slow: We rolled out everything with patience and precision from the launch of our initial log-in wall. We ensured everything was optional at the beginning: a pop-up window with a call to action would appear, but beneath it readers could select ‘close’, for example, or ‘remind me in two weeks’. Uptake was slow but steady. After about two months, we saw solid results before everyone had to sign up. By that point, content recommendation was already at work – and the core of our new paid digital content system was established.
Results for this campaign
We collected more than 170,000 verified accounts in the first few months after paywall launch, with almost all of those readers opting to receive promotional information. To achieve this, we employed several different strategies: We adjusted account-conversion prompts based on individual reader habits – for example, we’d encourage active commenters to join other conversations, or target specific readers to sign up to our various email blasts. Once a reader had performed specific actions, such as reading a certain number of articles in a month, we’d send further prompts to encourage account conversion.
These efforts were successful beyond our expectations - we created our largest mailing list to date, and collected a wealth of information on the usage habits of our readers, key to establishing a successful paywall supported by content recommendation. We also managed to generate revenue through new sponsored-content packages that we based on top-ranking user interest categories – Head Start, our daily news briefing, caught the attention of Canada’s top coffee chain. Tim Hortons signed on to sponsor it for the year based on the strength of its content.
We’re also continuing to be creative with that newly generated email list, incorporating content recommendation while we’re at it. A recent snow storm in Winnipeg was the perfect launch pad for “Great Reading for a Snowy Evening”, a sponsored email blast of Free Press long reads for those users stuck at home. This had an open rate of 71 per cent, far higher than our average of 53 per cent.
This is just the beginning. But we understood from the outset that this new wealth of information comes with great responsibility. We made great strides in our efforts to ease the transition for readers into the new paid-digital realm, and we continued to learn from that success.