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March 3, 2022updated 16 Nov 2022 5:56pm

Publisher paywall strategies for 2022: AI driving dynamic subscription technology

By Freddy Mayhew

Subscriptions have become a “business-critical revenue stream” for publishers looking to make digital pay during the pandemic and many are wishing they’d introduced paywall strategies sooner – according to one of the world’s leading subscription platforms.

 Publishers who were taking their time in moving to a digital-first strategy pre-pandemic are now “reconsidering” according to Nina Juss, co-founder of Evolok. 

Founded in 2010, Juss says the company has seen an uptick in new clients during the pandemic. 

Adding further impetus for publishers to develop a fully-fledged subscription strategy is the incoming cookie-less web. Google has said it will phase out third-party publisher cookies on Chrome by the end of 2023 placing a huge question-mark over the ability of publishers to monetise their sites via advertising.

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Subscription journey for publishers

A publisher’s subscription journey typically begins with registering readers, known as a datawall, then moving to paid subscriptions and finding a paywall model that fits, be it metered (x articles free per month), freemium (charging only for premium content) or hard (no free content). 

Only a small percentage of the overall reader base is likely to be converted to subscriptions, but this can nonetheless add up to a significant revenue source for publishers. 

In the UK news industry there are examples of different models at play, with the Financial Times  and The Times websites taking the hard paywall approach, while The Telegraph and The New Statesman run a metered service and The Independent has chosen to go freemium.

Specialist publications that serve an industry or niche interest typically have hard paywalls.

In the Middle East and Asia, which was very much print-led before the Covid-19 pandemic, generous metered paywalls have been the model of choice. 

Machine learning drives dynamic publisher paywall technology

In the UK, Europe and US, the growing trend has been towards a “dynamic paywall” which makes use of new technologies, such as machine learning, to automatically fit the offer to the reader based on data about them. 

“A lot of our clients have already tried and tested paywall models. They’ve been down the road of just doing a pure hard paywall and now they’re moving into a dynamic model,” says Juss. 

Dynamic paywalls use an industry-standard “propensity to convert” score which, once reached, means a reader is likely to subscribe. Only then will they be prompted to pay. “Machine learning now plays a key role in optimising the experience and driving new subscriptions.” says Juss. “Publishers in Western markets are using AI to automate the whole subscription process.”

Data is key to making this work effectively, both in capturing subscribers and retaining them. The more is known about the reader, the more effectively they can be segmented and targeted to pay for content at the right time and at the right price point. 

Juss says data is critical to determining the “success, or not, of a publisher’s digital strategy”. “It drives activity for the publisher, helping them to get to know their readers and how to look after and retain them.”  

“Data helps to build loyalty, to build engagement, to build your subscribers, your growth and, ultimately, your revenue as well.” 

Publisher paywall strategies

Evolok has worked with a number of major media brands, including The New Yorker and Press Gazette sister title The New Statesman, and has seen many clients make a success of paywalls.

One example she highlights is a client in South America who made a decision to trial a paywall expecting to see a small return. They gave themselves a modest target in terms of subscription numbers in the first year.  In the end they “smashed” their target in the first quarter and then proceeded to increase the subscription price as a result.

Publisher paywall strategies: ‘Don’t offer too many subscription products’ 

A classic mistake publishers are prone to making, says Juss, is offering too many subscription products, creating a confusing mix of offers and putting potential customers off as a result. Evolok recommends a maximum of three or four subscription products for readers. 

“Keep your offering as simple as you can,” advises Juss. “You can always have a VIP membership for someone who wants to pay more for the bells and whistles. But, for your general user, give them two or three options – for example: print, online and mobile-app products. Any more than this and it starts to feel overly complex for a potential customer.” 

Optimising paywalls by removing barriers 

One of the subscription trends expected in 2022 is publishers refining paywall features to optimise success rates. Ease of payment is vital – “you will lose customers if there is friction in the payment process”, says Juss.

Publishers should be integrating with payment providers  and “making sure the journey to pay is seamless”, she says, adding: “The whole transaction should be as simple and straightforward as possible.”  

The same goes for reader logins. “We’re in a generation where attention spans are short, so logging in needs to be very easy,” says Juss. “Let’s be honest, everybody forgets passwords, so publishers need to be offering a one-time, single login facility that doesn’t require a password – whether that’s through mobile/SMS, social accounts or a QR code.”

As a full-service platform, Evolok not only provides the technology, but the “consultancy, strategic vision and knowledge to enable publishers to use these features in the right way and make a success of subscriptions.”

There is often a debate at publishers, according to Juss, on whether they should build a paywall themselves or work with a partner. “We can understand why some publishers would want to take a more independent approach,” says Juss. “But the benefits of working with an experienced partner far outweigh the challenges of building something from scratch. Will your subscription system be sustainable in five years time? Will it be able to continuously optimise the experience through AI and data analytics? These capabilities are crucial for long-term success.”

These are areas that Evolok has been developing for years, Juss says. “Our roadmap is about the future –  what’s happening in five years from now and how the technology will evolve and improve. We live and breathe subscription innovation and we can share that knowledge with our clients.”

Read more: How Kenya’s The Nation reaches 21,000 daily paywall subscribers

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