It’s no secret that online publications have been turning away from advertising towards the pay wall in recent years. In the UK, the first and most notable mover was The Times and The Sunday Times. The Times, owned by Media Corp is one of the most recognised media brands in the world, and they went behind a pay wall as long ago as 2009. Others have since followed, but not without their own problems. However, web publishers are a business like any other, and as such are constantly investigating new ways to drive higher revenues. This has led to the rise of a whole new concept – the a la carte paywall.
The great problem with the traditional paywall gateway lies in the fact that it has dramatic and huge impacts on the websites audience. If we implemented a paywall on BurnTech.TV tomorrow, then our page impressions – the life blood of any web publication – would plummet overnight. Whilst we would gain a new revenue stream in the form of subscribers, we would lose the majority of our audience. Therefore the ad units that you see down the sides of this article would get no exposure, and the ad revenue would almost cease to exist overnight. I remember reading with keen interest into the impact that the paywall installed on The Times had on their traffic, and some reports put the impact as high as a 90%. Audience drop. A website which was serving circa 100 million monthly page impressions fell to a mere 10 million.
There were other problems too. Journalists have increasingly started to focus on building personal brands, typically with the use of social media websites. Twitter is a real favourite, and many leading journalists at the largest newspapers and magazines have built up formidable personal followings. The savvy ones have now realised that this carries real value. They have a personal brand, and where they have tens of thousands of dedicated followers, they suddenly have a tool which can be used to drive swathes of traffic to their employers website. Simple write a post and tweet out a link, and in the minutes that follow the tweet the
new article can receive thousands of targeted views from fans of that journalist. Many are using this clout to leverage better packages out of their employers, and in
many cases are able to secure revenue shares on advertising revenues derived from the traffic that they personally drive. If your employer goes and installs a paywall, you suddenly lose that ability to build a brand. You also lose the ability to be able to share your stories with your fans, and this leads to a decline in your follower numbers. In other words, the decision made by your employer can start to hurt your own brand value, and this leads to the bigger names jumping ship to ‘free’ publications. This in turn impacts the websites ability to charge a price for their content, as a lot of the draw lies in the websites big name journalists.
So for many, the very thought of installing a paywall is terrifying. In any publication, the editors have an immense amount of power and control. The commercial team are always wary of treading on toes and know that the editors are normally more than happy to kick up a fuss wherever possible. Add in the dangers of a huge traffic drop allied with the loss of advertising revenue, and you begin to realise that it’s a very brave step to take to install a paywall at all. This though, is where an a la carte paywall can come in.
Take the leading men’s magazine, Esquire. They’re a classic case in point, and this July they experimented with a paywall for the very first time. However, instead of placing a big blockade across all of their content in the traditional paywall manner, they instead put a special report behind their paywall. One of the publications leading editors, Luke Dittrich spend months creating a special 10,000+ word article. Not only was this a hugely time consuming exercise, but it was also very expensive for Esquire to produce. The websites editor in chief, David Granger, therefore decided to place the content behind a special paywall. In return for $1.99, Esquire’s readers could get access to the special story.
Then, there’s the rise of a whole new paywall – the advertising interstitial. This concept fits in better with a publications typical advertising led revenue model, making it easier to get internal buy in to implementation. So rather than asking a reader to take their wallet out of their pocket, instead the website asks the reader to view a video advert of their choice in order to gain access to special content. Sports Illustrated are trailing this idea with 6 stories at the moment, and they believe that by offering readers the chance to get access to stories that they would normally have to wait longer for, such as cover stories on magazines which are still on the shelf. The trial has been modest in scope so far, but has delivered some early results for SI.
Some publishers are also looking to iTunes to help them drive bigger digital revenues. Apple have built a digital economy where people are willing to buy content which they may once have tried to get for free, such as movies and music. Magazines are doing increasingly well in that environment now, where the immersive experience on tablet computers can add some real value to the reading experience over and above reading an article on a web page. The Atlantic publication have started leveraging this by repurposing a selection of articles into an advert free magazine, which they publish once per week. Most interesting about this paid content experiment is the fact that the articles are all available on the publishers website, but users are still willing to pay to avoid the ads.
One thing is becoming clear, these new types of paywalls are working. Esquire are launching a fully redesigned website next year, and are actively looking at ways that they can build paywalls into that. For Sports Illustrated, the non-monetary paywall has been a “geyser of revenue”. The joy of these solutions lies in the fact that they don’t necessarily mean that the internet’s golden era of free content is going to end. The era of completely free content is coming to an end, but was it ever there to begin with?
Consumers have always been the product in online publishing, where the publication trades eyeballs for free content. Those eyeballs are wroth serious money in advertising, so you could argue that you’ve been paying all along. These new solutions seem to work for the consumer too, and critically they all allow the publication to continue generating serious advertising revenues alongside these new paid alternatives.