What Are the Different Kinds of Paywalls (and Do They Work?)

While digital subscriptions and paywalls are nothing new to the publishing industry, advances in application technologies and the need to consolidate and sync visitor and revenue data from across multiple sources have increased innovation on all fronts. Beyond just implementation, publishers have the ability to optimize their efforts in regards to targeting, UX, offerings, and subscriber management. 

Whether you’re a modest-sized publisher or a media giant, subscription revenue is something every content producer can benefit from. Many large publishers, such as The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and The Washington Post, use paywalls to generate revenue. While there are complexities, at the end of the day, it’s about finding the right visitor at the right time with the right offer, and we can help.

Below are some answers to paywall questions from the most basic paywall definitions to those heavily researched by leading digital industry institutes.

What is a Paywall?

A paywall is a website feature implemented by digital publishers that requires a value exchange to access subscriber content or experiences. Revenues via paid subscriptions are generally the end goal of publishers, however, paywalls can be used to offer access to content incrementally, by offering an exchange of value. For example, a website could offer a month of access to a user for signing up to an email newsletter, or by agreeing to an ad-lite experience.

What is a Digital Subscription?

A digital subscription provides access to all or a set of content on a publisher’s website, and may also include exclusive content for paying customers, as well as access to the publisher’s mobile app. Some subscriptions also unlock unique experiences, like ad-free surfing.

What are Some Add-ons or Perks Offered with Digital Subscriptions?

Zero ads or an ad-lite experience, commenting access, rewards programs, and even newsroom tours, access to journalists at live events, or giveaways. The Newspaper Association of America estimated that 29% of larger news publishers offer perks with a digital subscription.

What is the Average Price of a Digital Subscription?

According to a survey of 98 US news organizations by the American Press Institute, the average price for a digital subscription was $3.11 per week. The averages varied by model; publishers using a metered model averaging $2.97, freemium models averaged $3.52, and a few using a hard paywall model-averaged $4.43.

What is a Soft Paywall?

A soft paywall allows users to access some digital content based on criteria set up by the online publisher. This approach allows visitors to experience the quality of content, before being required to subscribe. The most common form is a metered paywall.

What is a Metered Paywall?

A metered paywall typically allows access to a set number of articles per month before requiring a subscription. Publishers can test the number of articles offered to optimize subscription conversions for their audience. The metered model is less disruptive to casual visitors and can convert 5-10% of the most engaged readers into paying digital subscribers, according to research from the Lenfest Institute.

What is a Paywall “Stop Rate”?

The stop rate is the percentage of website visitors that hit a subscription paywall when they have reached the metered limit of free articles.

What is the Average Number of Articles Publishers Should Set for Their Metered Paywall?

The average stop rate has been dropping as publishers tighten their metered paywall limits. The most recent data show an industry norm of 5 articles per month meter limit for the most successful publishers. 

For a sustainable digital content business, 5-10% of the most engaged visitors are typically willing to subscribe to digital content. Publishers should monitor the behavior of their most engaged users and set a meter limit which does not discourage casual visitors, but catches monthly regular readers. A recent Pay-meter Playbook white paper by Harvard’s Shorenstein Center for Media and Lenfest Institute, suggest many publishers are still too lax with meter limits.

What is a Hard Paywall?

A hard paywall prohibits visitors from viewing any content without a subscription. The hard paywall can be the most difficult to circumvent, but also the riskiest. Sustainable hard paywalls are rare, mostly leveraged by publishers that already dominate their markets, target a niche audience, and/or provide added value to their content.

What is a Leaky or Porous Paywall?

A paywall that allows exceptions, intentional or otherwise, to the strict metered article limit. Also used to describe paywalls with a very generous article limit or freemium models. According to a study of top news and magazine sites, Columbia Journalism Review reports that there are many ‘holes’ in paywalls.

Examples include:

  • Not counting the first article read towards the meter limit when the visitor is from a search result,
  • Allowing digital content to be accessed for free from Twitter,
  • Removing the paywall limit during breaking news stories or local emergencies, or
  • Not catching users that delete cookies or use incognito browsing.

What is a Dynamic Paywall?

A dynamic paywall is data-centric and personalized, in contrast to the one-size-fits-all hard paywall or standard metered model. It does not offer the same paywall, offer, or meter limit to every visitor or at the same meter limit. Instead, the dynamic paywall seeks to identify particular behaviors or audience segments and maps a more relevant digital subscription offer.

Dynamic paywall approaches have been implemented by New York Media, The New York Times, and Hearst Newspapers but are still very new to the industry. Swiss newspaper Neue Zürcher Zeitung’s (NZZ) conversion rate has grown subscriptions five-fold in the last three years using a dynamic approach.

An advanced version of dynamic metering that offers more value exchanges than just content subscription are sometimes called multi-dimensional metering (MDM). MDM avoids the risk of scaring away potential subscribers by asking to “get married on the first date”. Instead of focusing on a paid relationship as a first step for all segments, MDM grows visitor relationships via email signups, social follows, web notifications, privacy consent and more, in an intelligent way that optimizes the relationship and revenue growth.

What are Common Factors of Digital Subscribers?

American Press Institute reports the following factors across a variety of digital paywall converters:

  • Most live in urban/suburban areas
  • Access to local news a the primary motivator
  • Most regularly visited the website before subscribing
  • Nearly half, 45%, first subscribed because of a promotion or free trial
  • “News seekers” are a high-converting segment, often finding the article via search
  • Quality articles and reliable, accurate facts were highly valued by subscribers

Do Paywalls Work?

Although paywalls have been around for 20 years, they didn’t gain prominence until 2011-2012 with the launch of The New York Times metered paywall. Today over 76% of US digital news publishers have a pay model in place. Norms are a moving target as publishers continue to experiment with paywall models, subscription pricing, deeper analysis of visitor segments, and the types of content needed for paid subscription success.

Top performers have seen success at growing subscriber revenues year over year. The New York Times has grown 3.8 million subscribers since 2011 with over one billion in overall subscription revenue last year. The Times of London now has over 500,000 digital subscribers, surpassing print. The Seattle Times, with a more regional audience, has added 36,000 digital subscribers and believes consumer expectations are changing.

How Can I Set Up a Paywall?

Publishers should look for point and click managed paywall and digital subscription solutions that are easy to set up and include meter limits, reporting, single article micro-transactions, email and social subscriptions, and more.