In the struggle to make up for lost ad revenue, digital publishers are turning to a key solution: paywalls. They are charging readers for access to all or specific content on their websites.
According to a 2019 report by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, almost 70% of leading newspapers across the U.S. and the European Union use paywalls — up from 64.5% in 2017. Even The New York Times is betting on its paywall strategy to increase subscribers.
The question is: How can small publishers make paywalls work for their websites? And what do you need to know to start increasing revenue and growing loyal audiences of readers?
Let’s take a look.
What Is a Paywall?
A paywall is a digital gate placed in front of website content, unlocking this gate requires a payment or a subscription. If you’ve ever clicked on an article and been told you need to sign in or sign up for access, you’ve likely encountered a paywall. It might look like this:
Paywalls vary in type and fee, though publishers commonly charge a monthly payment to access content behind a paywall. According to that Reuters study, the average price of lowest-tier monthly subscriptions is $15.62, with monthly prices ranging from $2.23 to $46.06. Over half (53%) of these publishers also offer some kind of free content, so not all articles are restricted.
Different Types of Paywalls Explained
Paywalls come in many different forms. Choose the one that best suits your revenue goals, content output, and audience behaviors.
Common types of paywalls include:
Hard paywalls require payment for access to all website content. There’s no gray area here. You either pay and enjoy the content, or don’t pay and head to a different website.
UK publication, The Sunday Times, uses a hard paywall on its website, popping up on the very first article you visit:
While hard paywalls are restrictive, they help publishers build audiences of only the most loyal, interested, and high-quality readers.
Metered paywalls kick in after a reader has enjoyed a certain number of free articles. Readers may have a chance to read three free articles a month, for example, then they have to pay to access any further content on the publisher’s site.
According to Statista, most publishers (57%) offer five free articles or less before their metered paywall kicks in.
Take Digiday, which offers three free articles before prompting readers to subscribe:
This metered option gives readers an opportunity to see if they enjoy your work before investing in more.
Freemium paywalls provide a mix of free and paid content. All breaking news content might be free, for example, but all sports and entertainment content is paid. Or short-form articles might be free, but long-form, investigated pieces come with a charge.
The Guardian uses this model for its digital subscription package, offering paid members access to live coverage, daily briefings, and ad-free articles.
Dynamic or ‘flexible’ paywalls are automatically customized to each reader’s interests and behaviors. This has recently become a popular strategy among top-tier publishers such as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Hearst. One particularly engaged reader might be prompted to pay after reading just three articles, for instance, while another might be given more free articles to consume before they demonstrate a stronger interest in becoming a subscriber.
What Are the Benefits of Paywalls?
Publishers enjoy many benefits from incorporating paywalls into their websites, including:
- Driving revenue – Earn money directly from reader contributions and diversify your revenue streams beyond ads, donations, or sponsored posts. Use this revenue to keep your small publication or side gig going, and deliver even better content for your readers. The Information, a tech news site that launched in 2013, generated 20,000 paying members in just three years. Each contributes $399 a year for access to its content.
- Collecting data – Learn more about what your readers want by tracking how many posts they read before subscribing, and which articles eventually drive them to become members.
- Increasing subscriptions – When people sign up for paid content, you can collect their email addresses and send them customized content that keeps them engaged with your publication and reduces customer churn. When Wired introduced its paywall, for example, it saw a 300% increase in digital subscribers in the first year.
How Do You Build a Paywall?
Small publishers can use a variety of tools to install paywalls on their sites, such as:
- Plugins – WordPress offers plugins, such as Leaky Plugin and WooCommerce, for this very purpose.
- Subscription management software – Online programs, such as LaterPay, MediaPass, and Pelcro, help you customize and automate your paywall setup.
- Developers – If you have the resources, you can work directly with a software developer to code a paywall into your website. Or you can use freelance talent platforms, such as Upwork and Fiverr, to find developers who can help.
Making Paywalls Pay Off
Large publishers have helped shepherd in the paywall revolution as they discover new ways to drive revenue and build loyal audiences. Now, small publishers have an opportunity to learn from their strategies and create the paywall models that work best for their goals.
By incorporating a paywall into your website, you can continue to meet your bottom line and deliver high-quality content to engaged communities of readers.