A publisher’s paywall strategy is about more than the bottom line

The Sell Sider” is a column written in AdExchanger for the sell side of the digital media community. This abridged column is written by Alessandro De Zanche, an independent audience strategy consultant.

While it has been part of a successful core strategy for a few major publishers for some time, the publisher paywall became a hot topic for the wider digital media sector last year, and the trend will most likely continue in 2018.

Unfortunately, this conversation has been mostly triggered by a deep decline in advertising revenue, making it reactive rather than a proactive change of strategy.

The view that adding a paywall to request payment in exchange for user access to content as simply a new revenue opportunity would be misleading and dangerous.

Before publishers can decide which paywall model makes the most sense for their business, they must examine their own identity and audience. These factors are, in my opinion, the root causes of the bumpy road that many publishers find themselves traveling.

Another issue is operational: Editorial, technology, marketing, commercial and data teams often act separately, creating consequences for strategic implementation and outcomes.

To determine the potential of a paywall model, publishers must consider their identity and audience from every side of the business because it is not, counterintuitively, just a commercial issue.

Identity, Identity, Identity

What is behind the successful pay models of The New York Times, The Washington Post, Financial Times, The Economist, Wall Street Journal and The Times (of London), among a few others? They have a strong identity on top of a solid strategy to generate a close bond with their audience, which has been refined over the years through trial and error and, more importantly, significant investments.

These enormous efforts require resources, ideas and a long-term mindset. But you also need guts for leading instead of following, creating instead of copying, and the confidence to put your neck on the line. No amount of money can buy that.

Identity is a mix of values, reputation, perception and uniqueness of a publisher’s value proposition. It determines the type of audience, the strength of its connection with the media brand and the way in which the two will engage; the monetization opportunities may be completely different from one media brand to another, even from title to title within the same publisher portfolio.

No Copy And Paste

From 2013-2016, I worked for a large UK media company that operated two major titles behind a paywall. A couple of years later, a tabloid in the portfolio moved to a free model.

Same publisher, two titles with different outcomes from their paywall model. One operated successfully behind a paywall with a positive financial outlook and profitability for the first time in years, while the second reverted to an entirely free model.

The main reasons for the difference in outcomes? Different content strategies and audiences.

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