Digital Publishing Reader Revenue Top Stories
4 mins read

Paywalls: Protect the investment in your content

Content-for-free was probably digital publishing’s biggest mistake, but smart publishers are now making amends by gating access to their most valuable information assets. Many are earning real returns on their content-creation investments.


Once seen as a radical, maybe even reckless act, putting up a paywall has become almost de rigueur for publishers online, the weapon of choice in the ongoing fight for revenue diversification. But talking about paywalls as if they were a one-size-fits-all solution to ad-funding shortfalls is a gross oversimplification; paywalls come in more flavours than Baskin Robbins.

Luckily the technology available to charge readers for access is as rich and varied as the types of content people will pay for. From pay-per-article micropayment solutions to full-service membership platforms, the reader revenue space is incredibly well served.

And yet, the cleverest part of putting up a paywall lies less in the technology than in figuring out exactly where your paid-content sweet spot lies. In short, you first need to figure out what your audience will pay for and how much.


  • If the Coronavirus pandemic has taught us anything it’s that you need more than one string to your bow to survive as a publisher. COVID-19 might have crushed newsstand sales, advertising and events, but it put reader revenues front and centre for publishing planners. When everything else gets locked down, a digital subscription delivers for everyone.
  • At the heart of every perfectly executed paywall plan lies the most intimate of audience relationships, a relationship that requires your readers to hand over their credit card details. Treat it right and that intimacy can be the foundation for years of recurring revenues, the driver for insane levels of audience insight and the spark that launches a thousand new products from hyper-niche newsletters to entirely new content verticals.
  • Putting your best work behind a paywall makes it easier to build a strong community around an exclusive brand. Over time, the trust and loyalty that regular paying readers demonstrate can be leveraged back into premium advertising and sponsorship slots behind the paywall. The halo-effect of an active paid community can even be used to hike the value of your open-web inventory.


  • You need to pick a paywall that works for you and your audience. Mixed models that put some content in front of the paywall and some behind are a good way to let prospective subscribers see what they’re missing. But give too much away and you’ll have trouble converting; tie things down too tightly and you’re going to have to think very, very hard about your acquisition programme. Dynamic paywalls might seem to promise the perfect mix, opening and closing the gate based on individual user profiles, but you’ll need to weigh the upfront investment against the potential returns.
  • Before you close the doors, it’s crucial you perfect your subscriber sales pitch. You’re going to have to communicate the value of content that isn’t readily accessible so have your USPs well rehearsed. And if you’re going to let people try before they buy, you’ll have to decide on the best way to do that. Is metered access enough or would low or no-cost trials convert better?
  • I once worked with a salesman who boasted he could sell anything once. That might have worked for him, but renewals are the lifeblood of every subscription business and you’ll need to start thinking about audience retention as soon as you put up your paywall. There are all sorts of retention communication strategies, but all rely on delivering on or exceeding the original value proposition.


  • Celeraone
    Understand, engage and convert your readers into loyal subscribers

CeleraOne was founded in Berlin in 2011. It now works with 140 publishing clients to deliver paid content solutions, identity management and user segmentation.

  • Evolok
    Unlock your content’s true revenue potential

Evolok was founded in London 2012. Its software processes over 20 million unique users per day for clients including The New Yorker, Wired and The Telegraph.

  • Piano
    Drive engagement. Fuel conversion. Maximize results

Piano employs a staff of 350 people worldwide. The company’s clients include The Wall Street Journal, The Economist and newspaper company Gannet.

Case study

Possibly the scariest paywall model to consider is the hard paywall. Softer solutions that allow some access to content are easier to contemplate than the firm doorslam of the ‘pay-up or push-off’ approach. But hard paywalls can work, and not just for giants like The Wall Street Journal or The Financial Times.

The Information, a niche tech and business news site founded in 2013, has made its name by never letting anyone read anything much until they have paid. And at about $400 a year, the price tag is not the cheapest.

The secret to the site’s success relies largely on the quality of its content. The pricing reflects an A-list writers’ roster and a focus on quality not quantity – it publishes just a few deeply researched stories a day. Founder Jessica Lessen says, “You become a successful subscription business not when you put a paywall up; you become a successful subscription business when you have content that’s worth paying for.”

Further Reading

This article is an excerpt from our free-to-download report, 6 publishing technologies that will make a difference to your business.