Reuters’ Journalism, Media and Technology Trends and Predictions 2019 survey has found that 52% of news executives intend to focus on subscriptions as their main source of revenue in 2019.
However, with an increasing number of publishers going behind a paywall, getting readers to pay up is going to be even more of a challenge. After all, how many subscriptions is an individual going to sign up for?
According to tech and media journalist Simon Owens, “Each new paywall isn’t launched into a vacuum; a potential subscriber must weigh it against every publication to which they’re already subscribed. At what point do they look at their expenditures and decide that one more monthly payment of $5 to $10 is just too much?”
Free vs. paid: Finding the right balance
Matthew Skibinski, Reader Revenue Advisor & Consultant at The Lenfest Institute for Journalism, suggests that publishers develop their paywall strategy around valuable content. He says, “When developing the rules for your paywall, you can signal some types of stories that are either always behind the paywall or that trigger the paywall quicker, such as opinion pieces or in-depth analysis.”
But finding the right balance between how much content to give away for free, and how much to hold back for triggering subscription, is a common concern for publishers.
French publisher Le Monde was able to increase subscriber conversions by 46% after a site redesign and placing around 37% of its best content behind a paywall. Earlier, Le Monde had around 33% of its content behind a paywall, when it increased that to 40%, there was a negative impact on non-subscribing audience figures.
However, it’s not just the amount of articles behind a paywall that has affected subscriber conversion for Le Monde. Earlier, subscribers were taken to a different site tab to view premium content. After the redesign, both free and paid content is displayed on the homepage with paid content carrying yellow logos. The idea is to make the journey from reader to subscriber shorter.
“We needed to unify the experience for both readers and subscribers so it was the same page for both. People do want personalization, but they also want the selection of the best content on the homepage and not too many articles so it feels like you are reading the paper,” explains Le Monde’s Head of Innovative Subscriptions, Lou Grasser.
Le Monde also promotes paid content through push notifications and on social media its subscription and marketing teams work together to promote paid content.
Putting free and paid-for content side by side has a psychological effect. By forcing consumers to make this decision, of the price-value trade-off, they are able to effectively create the call-to-action that is often required to get a prospective reader over the inertia barrier.Greg Harwood, Director, Simon-Kucher & Partners (strategy and marketing consultancy)
Identifying subscription triggering content
That brings us to determining what kind of content should be placed behind a paywall and what should be free. INMA’s benchmarking survey for its 2018 Media Subscriptions Blueprint found that opinion pieces and investigative journalism content were more likely to trigger digital subscriptions. The reason being, these articles are unique to a publisher and unlikely to be found elsewhere.
It is also important for publishers to identify the type of content that is triggering subscriptions for them; they may not always be aware of the reality. As in the case of The Wall Street Journal, according to its Executive Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer Suzi Watford, her team used to believe that arts and culture content was not very important but learned later that it was actually one of the top five drivers for conversions.
That’s where data comes into play. Incorporation of data and technology plays a key role in successful digital subscription strategies. It can be used to inform all aspects of the strategy, from setting revenue/maximizing subscription prices to identifying the most valuable subscribers, as well as subscription triggering content.