February 25, 2020

Trying to Grow Subscriptions With a Hard Paywall

When The Information launched, many in mainstream media looked at what the team were doing and scoffed. There was no way a hard paywall could work, they said. And yet, it did.

Simon Owens published a piece on What’s New In Publishing last week that did a deep dive into what The Information did well. In it, he touched on the five aspects that made the business successful. He wrote:

Because The Information doesn’t monetize with ads and charges so much for a subscription (more on both of those points in a moment), it can’t get away with churning out commodity news that can be found on every other website. “You can’t put a paywall on a pig,” Lessen explained at a media bootcamp. If a story isn’t truly original, The Information doesn’t consider it worth publishing.

And it isn’t merely settling for small scoops. It aims for impact, the kind that results in executive firings or moves a company’s stock price. Its extensive reporting on sexual harassment allegations at a prominent venture capital firm, for instance, led to a partner’s resignation. It broke the news that eBay would spin PayPal off into its separate company. 

At a recent event about media monetization, Jarrod Dicker from The Washington Post said, “I’m very concerned by every single media company thinking that there’s this huge consumer revenue pie that they’re all of a sudden going to be able to flock to—I think that’s extremely dangerous.”

Dicker is right. Every media company is attempting to earn subscription dollars from their audience and they’re going to realize that it just doesn’t work. Not all content is created equal and most pubs are doing exactly what Lessin said: putting lipstick on a pig.

For those publishers that do figure out a subscription model that works, it’s likely because they will have moved away from producing a lot of content to creating top quality content. It’s more important to cover the topic with unique information than it is to have every piece of information. Depth is far more important than quantity.

Nevertheless, the big concern with a hard wall is that your ability to share content is drastically reduced and it becomes difficult for new audience to understand what kind of content you’re producing. That’s why the softer walls make a lot of sense. The user can get a taste of the kind of content they’ll receive and then, when they want more, they have to pay.

That’s the model I take here at A Media Operator. Every Tuesday is free and open. Readers get a taste. However, if a reader wants to get the Friday pieces (and access to the community), they then have to become a paid subscriber. I can tell you that since locking content down on A Media Operator, growth has slowed considerably. That’s to be expected. I cut the amount of shareable content by 50%, so of course fewer people are going to find my content.

There’s a natural way around that, though, and I think The Information hints toward a model that could make sense. See the image below:


In the above example, when I drop an email address in, it redirects me to the subscription where I can create a paid account.

However, another tactic would be to treat this like a free registration wall. In exchange for a piece of information—the email address is always most important—the user is able to access the article. This solves two needs for the publisher:

  1. The user is able to get a taste of the content, which might be enough to get the paid conversion
  2. The publisher now has an opportunity to engage with the user and let them know the content they’re missing out on

While both are incredibly important, the second reason gives the most upside because, if deployed correctly, I imagine this list of free sign-ups could wind up being a source of many new paid subscribers as time goes on.

Think back to an early piece I wrote about the stop rate on paywalls. The most successful publishers stopped over 8% of their audience with a paywall resulting in a much higher conversion than those that stopped fewer people. Ultimately, for a user to sign up, they need to be prompted. The more often a user sees the wall, the more likely they are to sign up.

Now factor in that you’re a hard paywalled publication and the user is only going to see the wall. Because you have the user’s email address, you can let them know when one of your best stories gets published with an email blast. If the user tries to read it, they’ll hit the wall.

You could take this a step farther in an attempt to boost conversions… If you’ve got a tagging system in place, keep track of what tag the story belonged to that got the user to give over the email address. Then, if another story pops up from that tag, you can email the user. For example, if the story is tagged to WeWork (in the case of The Information), the next time a WeWork story pops up, then the story would be emailed to all people who had signed up through a story about that company.

One thing that I haven’t tested (and perhaps others have) is whether the unsubscribe rate from this sort of a “free user” newsletter is incredibly high. If the user just wanted to unlock a single piece of content and is never coming back again, it might be a situation where you just gave a free piece of content away and got nothing back.

A tactic that The Information offers for this as a means of getting new people to sign up is the $1 subscription. As a paid subscriber, I can basically give someone access to The Information for only a buck for the first three months. The user then has access to unlimited content. This is another interesting tactic worth exploring because, after three months, is the user hooked enough on the content to not churn?

Ultimately, running a hard paywall media business is about experimenting with different ways to both get people into the funnel and get that first paid conversion. Unlocking a piece of content in exchange for an email address is one tactic worth exploring. And, if nothing else, the $1 conversion is a way to get a credit card on file.

As a final reminder, though, none of this will work if the content isn’t good. All the tactics in the world might help The Information push growth in the business, but without the exceptional reporting, nothing else matters. It’s really that simple.

Moving right along…

Using audio as a retention tool

NiemanReports published a feature about how some publishers are finding success using audio versions of their articles to build loyal audience.

Now, when the magazine’s 14,000 subscribers open the Zetland app, they get a sort of playlist for each day, starting with a conversational podcast and moving into narrated articles. “In a way, it’s very old-fashioned the way members use us,” Mosbech says, comparing it to terrestrial radio. “They open the app in the morning and they just press ‘play’” and listen until they finish their commutes.

Prior to the audio experiment, departing members said they didn’t read enough stories to stay subscribed. But “when people start using us through audio, they use us more and they use us in a more stable way,” Mosbech says. The average completion rate for an audio story is 90% — enviably high for anyone in a newsroom who has watched on a Chartbeat analytics dashboard as users abandon text stories a few paragraphs in.

This is impressive. Unlike with text articles where a user might bounce after a few paragraphs, the user is actually making it through the majority of the pieces that are published. This improves the likelihood that users feel value in the subscription.

What is really interesting about this is it demonstrates a potential use case for a mobile app. I’ve historically been anti-app, not believing that many people would actually use it. That’s not to say we wouldn’t download them—I’ve got The Washington Post and The New York Times apps on my phone—but compared to others, I rarely open them.

This shouldn’t surprise anyone either. NiemanLab wrote a piece about a study from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. In it, the author summarized:

On those 20 young people’s phones, Instagram was the primary app: Every one of the 20 had it and spent the most time on it daily. News apps, by comparison, received much less usage. Apple News is pre-installed on iPhones, which helps account for its relative prominence here — but “no news app (with the exception of Reddit) was within the top 25 apps used by respondents…For two of the four individuals who had the BBC news app on their phone during the two-week tracking period; the app represented less than 1 percent of usage time for both.

Why should they? For most people, a news app is simply not a destination for people. I know from personal habit, I find most of my news by following specific journalists on Twitter.

Once there is a reason to open the app, though, it becomes more of a destination. In this case, the playlist of all the important stories of the day is the reason to open the application. Forming a habit with the user to continue opening the app day-after-day is a great way to take a paying subscriber and keep them engaged.

There is some work associated with doing audio versions of stories. You can either train your journalists to read the stories or you can partner with one of the companies listed in NiemanReport’s feature: Noa, Audm or Curio. There are obviously trade offs to this. If we think the audio is a great way to get users to engage with a mobile app, sending those audio files to another app doesn’t make the most sense. On the other hand, it could expose your content to a new audience and apparently they all pay some rev-share.

There are other companies that attempt to use an Alexa-like voice to create the audio and I don’t really advise this. While it does convey the news, it’s not as engaging as listening to a real voice. I’ve been pitched by a few companies that offer this and, especially when dealing with more complex topics, it becomes hard to understand and just not worth it.

Last week, Ben Thompson of Stratechery announced that he was going to be releasing a podcast version of his daily update. This Twitter thread by Rameez is worth looking at to understand more about the value of this.

We’ve talked about this before, but the hard work for a publisher comes after the subscription. In this case, the audio version of stories is a great way to help subscribers build a habit with the content. Ultimately, that’s the most important thing you can do.

Thanks for reading today’s piece. Do you have thoughts? Paid subscribers can leave a comment below. Please consider sharing this post with your colleagues who work in media. Finally, subscriptions to A Media Operator are only $100/year, but they’ll jump to $200 on March 12th. Join the fun and become a paid subscriber. See you on Friday!