Guest Columns Reader Revenue
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Opinion: Why more publishers should incorporate dynamic paywalls to improve personalisation and loyalty

In July this year, Google launched version 76 of Chrome, fixing an existing loophole that allowed publishers and other site owners to detect readers who were browsing in incognito mode. However, a consequence of closing this loophole meant that many publishers suddenly found their paywalls unlocked; WNIP estimates that as many as 33% of paywalls could have become unlocked due to the update.

Why is this so important? Firstly, paywalls are an important revenue driver for many publishers as new business models are introduced to offset declining advertising revenues; even journalists embrace the idea that paying for content online is necessary for funding journalism and complementing the advertising ecosystem. Secondly, Chrome has a market share of 64%, meaning the impact of this update is widespread, and effectively makes it easier to bypass paywalls by simply opening a page in incognito mode.

The biggest takeaway from this, however, is that not enough publishers are using paywalls advantageously, and instead, are relying on simply cookie-based metered paywalls that not only are less effective in driving subscriptions but can also be easily reset with incognito mode.

Publishers using outdated technology that is not up to the task are limiting their ability to attract more subscribers. Not only that; but a lack of innovation regarding reader revenue is a strategic problem too. In 2019, paywalls are a field where publishers need to constantly innovate to stay in the game, or old habits will keep them benched on the sideline.

Over the years publishers have tried out various paywall models with varying levels of success, categorised into hard, freemium, and metered paywalls.

Publishers that implement hard paywalls rely on a high amount of loyal, regular and paying users, who otherwise wouldn’t be able to access any content without a subscription. Freemium paywalls operate under the guise that ‘loyal’ readers will eventually buy a subscription to premium content after accessing specific content for free, all the while lacking subtlety or an understanding that every reader values something different from the other. And then you have metered paywalls, which give free access to a fixed number of articles per week or month. The issue with this model, apart from being the one most greatly impacted by the Chrome update, is that readers often get too accustomed to the free content and aren’t convinced of the value of a subscription if they already get enough with no cost.

One of the most limiting things about these three more traditional types of paywall, and something they all share in common, is that each paywall behaves in the same way regardless of who interacts with the site. They put the content first, rather than the user, placing the burden of generating subscriptions on the content alone, which in turn ignores the huge boosts in subscription growth that data-driven, real-time personalisation can offer.

In sharp contrast, a dynamic paywall will be constantly asking questions such as: which readers are most likely to convert to subscribers? Which readers should receive which kind of subscription offer? And when should readers receive an offer? This type of paywall will use the answers to these questions to constantly evolve and bend at will to suit the needs of a publishers’ readership, with no single consumer treated the same.

It’s this focus on personalisation that makes dynamic paywalls stand out from the pack while the still prevalent one-size-fits-all approach fails to understand how valuable reader data can be harnessed to encourage loyalty and therefore drive subscriptions and revenue.

Because dynamic paywalls work by applying machine learning to audience data in real-time, publishers can then use this tremendous insight about each reader to tailor the online experience based on readers’ interests and needs. It’s this personalisation engine that can categorise readers automatically according to their propensity to subscribe. This data-focused strategy should find the people most likely to subscribe and give publishers the flexibility to target consumers in different ways, thus allowing them to optimise their audience and traffic while maximising revenue potential in ways traditional paywalls simply cannot offer.

So, in light of this Chrome news, publishers should look at the change as an opportunity to re-evaluate their current paywall strategy. It is time to rethink the paywall not just as the divider between free and paid content but as a core element of the personalised customer journey and a key factor in driving sustainable long term customer relationships.

David Gosen, Chief Commercial Officer, Cxense 

About Cxense: Using audience data and advanced real-time analytics, Cxense creates hyper-relevant content recommendations (including video) and personalized user experiences that help publishers increase digital revenue and build a sustainable digital business model. 

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