New Report on Paywalls Urges Less Generosity and Better Welcome Letters

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Most publishers are too generous and need to stop more readers [with a paywall] to force conversion. 

That's from a new report from the Shorenstein Center at Harvard and Lenfest Institute titled, How Today's News Publishers Can Use Data, Best Practices, and Test-And-Learn Tactics to Build Better Pay-Meters. In it, they discern that publishers with stricter paywalls, email newsletters and clearly defined audiences were most likely to boost reader revenue.

And they also echo the current idea that yes, we need a paywall, but it should be specific to the audience.

"There are no 'hard and fast' rules for paywalls," the report states. "Instead, 'intelligent access' evaluates data continuously to create different access control rules for different behaviors. Among publishers studied, targeted intelligent access control rules allow a news organization to optimize its stop rate, or increase the percentage of all users who are stopped monthly by a payment ask. There is no 'one-size-fits-all' solution."

Here are more of the report's key findings:

The report talks a great deal about the importance of having a high stop rate—that is the percentage of all digital users who are 'stopped' by a subscription prompt, a paywall or a meter limit. It is calculated by the number of users stopped by a meter or paywall in a given month over the number of unique visitors during that period. The report found that the organizations that are stopping more people have stronger digital businesses.

You might want to lower your meter limit... A majority of publishers with metered models set their meter limits at 5 articles per month or lower. This number has gone steadily down since 2012. Some publishers used to set the paywall as high as 25 articles a month. "As publishers have experimented, and readers have become accustomed to digital subscription, meter limits have tended to decline among the publishers studied and within the industry at large."

...And increase reader opportunities to encounter the meter. Is the meter simply the articles a reader clicks on, or are there more factors involved? You might lower the meter rate for more editorially-intensive content. Their limit might be increased if they do other things with you. For those with an ad blocker, a subscription message might be customized to invite the reader to subscribe or turn your ad blocker off to continue to read content before the average meter stop.

The trend towards daily—and even hourly—reporting will continue. "Effective publishers tend to help create 'habit of news' among readers; the highest-performing publishers produce content readers want to refresh and read regularly. Our analysis found the most engaged subscribers expect daily and often hourly materials... While wire stories help a publisher furnish regular content, wires tended to leave an audience impression of low quality of content. Publishers should prioritize customized, frequent coverage that address a community's particular needs, concerns and interests."

Your page load times remain essential. "Page load times represent the largest difference between successful publishers in the top percentile and fiftieth percentile of publishers studied, with a median load times of 5.76 seconds... Effective site optimizers avoid advertising overload, use real estate to drive readers to subscription options, and encourage content discovery through customized recommendations and infinite scrolls—offering seamless reading experiences in desktop and mobile environments.

Work on your welcome message. "Thirty percent of onsite digital subscriptions originate from 'welcome' messages that provide an introduction to new readers, and 'warn' messages that serve as reminders as the reader approaches the meter limit." The report urges you to test multiple strategies to determine the most effective marketing messages. "Browser overlays and customized warnings have proven effective, particularly those that underscore meter limits for individual users and offer customized options for unique subscriptions based on the reader's profile and viewing history."

Be clear and make it easy. "The most effective stop messages include a single clear call to action, offer attractive introductory trial rates and include buttons that make clear the location(s) to click to advance the offer. Others include content-specific messages that link to the specific articles or sections the readers are pursuing."

Again, you can see the whole report here.

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Ronn Levine began his career as a reporter for The Washington Post and has won numerous writing and publications awards since. Most recently, he spent 12 years at the Newspaper Association of America covering a variety of topics before joining SIPA in 2009 and SIIA in 2013 as editorial director…