Closing content hurts. It is a widespread pain. Whoever makes the decision to put content behind the paywall at a central desk suffers that ache: social media editors, the editors in chief, and, more than anyone else, the authors of that now subscription-exclusive content.

What would happen if we hadn’t closed it? How many hundreds of thousands of unique users would read it? How many comments and shares would it receive in social media? Would our story come out on national television networks? And, the most difficult question to answer: What do we expect to happen when we close it?

Deciding to put content behind a paywall may initially produce less-than-stellar results.
Deciding to put content behind a paywall may initially produce less-than-stellar results.

The pain caused by the closure of content is due to the fact that, for years, all these people have become used to the dopamine generated by external stimuli such as the volume of unique users, pageviews, Facebook reach, or SEO successes. Let’s admit the problem in public: We are all addicted to Chartbeat.

And with the addiction to KPIs related to large volumes of audience, we’re suffering like we do from tobacco: It is killing us silently.

This addiction problem and the inability to overcome it are the main reasons why many digital subscription operations have failed to date. This is especially true if we don’t design the right workflow. That is: who makes the decision to make content exclusive or not and what feedback is given to the author.

If we don’t do that properly, the result is the content that causes less pain is that which is closed. Therefore, this is the content that is less attractive for potential subscribers. Many media houses have made political decisions about paywalls that have not been supported by newsrooms, which has led to failure.

How can we overcome audience addictions and go cold turkey in the least painful way possible? Let’s turn to a popular proverb: One hand washes the other.

To introduce new KPIs in a newsroom culture based on the new reader revenue model, we must be prepared to work with figures of a very different dimension, which is always inferior to the hundreds of thousands of unique users we can reach with open content in just a few hours.

The prescription is to share with stakeholders these new KPIs as soon as possible, regardless if the data is very modest or even hopeless at the beginning. It is better to tell a journalist her content led 20 users to the subscription store even if it hasn’t generated any direct conversion yet than to hide that information and simply close the content without any further explanation. And the day we can tell her that her content resulted in one, two, or five subscriptions, we will go for a beer.

At the end of the day, it’s about listening to readers, aligning the newsroom’s work with their preferences, and introducing the culture of the publishing business to journalists. Journalists should know the revenue the company obtains from a subscription versus the CPM of the free content model.

If we do this well, when we have to make the decision to put the best story of the day behind a paywall. It will still be painful, but less so.