Which paywall models are most popular and which are most effective?

By Greg Piechota


Oxford, United Kingdom


Freemium paywall model is most frequent internationally. Hybrid models are on the rise.  However, brands with different models grew subscriber base in 2022 at a similar rate.

This is based on original multi-year research, testing 473 Web sites in 33 countries and analysing subscription performance of 160 brands benchmarking with INMA in 2022. 

Paywall models describe criteria for labelling content or segmenting readers, and targeting them with subscription or membership offers.

Popularity trends

Every two years since 2018, we tested top 15 news Web sites ranked by reach in each of 33 countries surveyed by Oxford’s Reuters Institute.

In mid-2022, we found 192, or 41% of the total of 473 Web sites, featured some kind of a paywall restricting access to news content:

  • 53% offered some articles for free and some for a fee (freemium model).

  • 9% triggered a paywall after reading a few articles (metered model).

  • 15% used a combination of the two or more criteria for targeting (hybrid model).

  • 10% did not restrict access but asked for support (membership model).

  • 9% kept free access to the Web content but charged for print e-replica.

  • 4% restricted access to most or all content (hard wall model).

Our multi-year study showed some clear trends:

  1. An increase in popularity of hybrid models, from 3% in 2018 and 5% in 2020. 

  2. A decrease in popularity of charging only for print e-replica, from 32% in 2018 and 18% in 2020. E-replicas are usually bundled today with the Web access. 

  3. Popularity of membership models is dwindling, rising from 1% in 2018 but falling from 12% in 2020.

Effectiveness trends

Every quarter since 2021, we collected current and historic performance indicators from INMA corporate members, benchmarking 160 national and regional news brands in 31 countries. 

The distribution of paywall models in the INMA sample was different than in the Reuters Institute-inspired sample. The freemium wall was the most frequent too (38%), but the proportion of brands with hybrid or hard walls was much higher (29% and 22%, respectively).

In 2022, brands with different paywall models enjoyed a similar growth rate of the total number of digital-only subscriptions. At the end of September, they saw 8.9%-10.4% more subscriptions than in January, depending on a model. 

In simple terms, all paywall models worked similarly well.

INMA saw bigger differences when indexing growth to January 2020. Brands with hard and metered walls seem to have grown the fastest (162% and 148%), and hybrid and freemium sites seem to have grown more slowly (100% and 86%).

Does it mean that the least popular paywall models delivered the best performance in the long term? Correlation doesn’t indicate causation. 

The general logic of a paywall likely impacts the performance. However, brand awareness, product qualities, news cycle, actual offers (such as price and other terms), or specific paywall rules (such as its selectivity) impact the performance too, based on INMA research.

Individual publishers can test causal hypotheses through business experiments.

Brief history of paywalls

In the past, top news executives were sometimes deliberating paywall models for months before choosing one. Last year, some were changing targeting criteria every few weeks or months — South China Morning Post, for example. After exhausting one segment, they are simply targeting another, adjusting the paywall rules.

The most sophisticated paywalls today are automated systems, driven by predictive algorithms and fueled by data about readers, their behaviours, and context of visits. Initially, these hybrid models were the domain of the largest publishers, such as The New York Times, but recently software vendors have democratised access to predictive analytics and personalised paywalls.

Since the 2010s, the decision about whom to ask for a payment slowly moved from the strategic to tactical level — and now often is taken at the transactional level by an algorithm, locking and unlocking articles for each user. 

Paywall rules used to be optimised to maximise new conversions, but today they often balance different objectives, such as growing market share vs. lifetime value. Other revenue lines are also considered, as some readers may be unlikely to subscribe but monetised with advertisements. The Wall Street Journal is doing this, for example.

The decision about whether to charge online readers remains a strategic choice, exclusive to executives defining the business model of a company.

Considering change in a paywall model? Join INMA Benchmarks to see how different models impact reader funnels and business lines.

Greg’s Readers First newsletter is a public face of a revenue and media subscriptions initiative by INMA, outlined here. Subscribe here.

About Greg Piechota

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