10 building blocks for a successful paywall


Paywall programmes for newspaper publishers are definitely in vogue, and my newspaper, the Toronto Star, has announced it will be joining the fray with the introduction of a paid digital content plan in the summer of 2013.

There are times when a business can benefit from being a “first mover.” But, in this case, I am happy to be a follower, learning from the mistakes of others, picking up the wisdom of experience, and benefiting from lower launch costs.

The Star has been planning this move for many months and has invested significant resources in understanding what makes for a successful paid digital initiative for a North American newspaper.

Here is my top 10 list:

  1. Selling digital subscriptions requires expertise not normally found within the traditional newspapers’ circulation or marketing departments. It requires expertise in banner ad optimisation, landing page optimisation, and specialised digital direct marketing skills.

    These same skills need to be developed for selling print subscriptions, as well as digital subscriptions. You may need to hire external experts because you may under-perform if you try to get by with your current circulation or marketing resources.

  2. Selling print, digital, and combination subscriptions requires significant and consistent presence on your Web site’s homepage, even if it means taking up valuable space normally allocated to news.

  3. Digital subscription marketing requires specialised third-party resources, such as a paid-search agency and conversion rate optimisation consultants. You must budget for this necessity.

  4. Plan for about 40% churn in digital subscriptions after your first full year in operation.

  5. Expect the vast majority of digital-only subscribers to come from internal electronic sources. Plan for 85% of digital-only subscribers to come from or through the landing page or Growl. The remaining 15% will come through paid media, search, display, or e-mail.

  6. Print and digital offers need to be presented to potential customers early. Set your meter at 10 articles, with a first message appearing after three articles have been accessed, then another after eight, and finally a gateway page at the 10th article.

    Although simplicity is key. And too much choice is counterproductive. Consumers need to see what their options are so they can compare – print-only, print with digital, digital-only.

  7. Measuring reader engagement is critical to paid-digital subscription success. It’s easy to identify those digital subscribers who are at risk and market to them the content they say they are missing. Both The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal have significant efforts under way in this area.

    Links to the newsroom and technology resources become important in this area. Editorial and marketing should be using the same metrics to monitor success.

    Editorial should be using technology to encourage readers to stay on the site longer and read more. For example, it should have notations on items that say, “If you liked this item, read this,” with an accompanying link.

  8. Someone must own this internally, someone who is losing sleep over the planning of the launch and year-one execution. That’s critical because digital-only subscription volumes can be significant over time, and you also can increase print volumes and revenues.

  9. You have to spend money on marketing. A large metropolitan newspaper in the United States has a budget in excess of US$4 million in marketing digital subscriptions this year. Newspapers that invest are generating better results than those that fail to do so.

  10. Setting the meter level is a key decision, but one in which most newspapers have erred on the side of caution. The New York Times originally set its maximum at 20 then reduced to 10.

    From all reports, the change was a non-event. Chicago just launched with a meter set at five, although with only certain types of content behind the paywall.

I’m sure there are other tips to help with a successful programme. I look forward to hearing about other ideas. In most cases, newspapers don’t compete with each other, so let’s continue to share ideas – both good and bad.

Although the path forward remains unclear, there is a future for newspapers.

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