How tighter paywalls drove subscriptions growth

Feb 14, 2024 at 12:51 pm by admin

The then managing director of Australia’s Sydney Morning Herald and The Age metros once admitted that it was easier to skirt around their paywall than to log in.

That’s changed now, with tighter paywalls driving subscription growth, according to members of Nine Publishing’s audience development team.

The comment – from managing director of metro publishing division at the then Fairfax Media, Chris Janz – belongs to a conference in Singapore in 2017.

This week in an INMA ‘satisfying audiences’ blog, Lauren Vadnjal and Mex Cooper detail a series of experiments that evaluated the impact of tightening the paywall on subscriber acquisition.

Vadnjal and Cooper, heads of audience development at Nine’s Australian Financial Review, and the metro cluster of The Age, the Sydney Morning Herald, Brisbane Times and WAToday, respectively, tell how the major metro mastheads’ websites have evolved over decades from being focussed on reach and digital advertising, to being powered by reader subscriptions.

Newsrooms worked hard to retain a surge in subscriptions during the COVID-19 pandemic by concentrating on engagement metrics and successfully minimising churn.

“Retention remains a key goal for the newsrooms, but as the threat of post-COVID cancellations subsided and the news cycle returned to unpredictable but not unprecedented patterns, we honed in on how to further drive subscription growth,” they say.

In February 2023, supported by the Google News Initiative, the two mastheads worked on a series of newsroom experiments. “We were interested in refining an experimentation framework to ‘prioritise initiatives, set audience outcomes, and improve newsroom sustainability’.

“The first of three experiments the newsrooms undertook was to test the impact of tightening our paywall on subscriber acquisition.

Despite a registration wall and a metered paywall, insights suggested much visitor traffic was in fact, repeat users actively bypassing these walls to read for free.

“We wanted to test what would happen if we further limited access to select stories chosen by the newsrooms,” they say. “By manually applying a tag that initiated the paywall, we could track which stories, topics, and types of content were more likely to push people to pay.”

Rules were established on what was to be paywalled, and in the first few months of the experiment, newsrooms manually applied the hard paywall to about 11 per cent of content. Editors and journalists had to question which stories they felt could not be found anywhere else and would compel someone to subscribe, and the response was tracked.

“Within weeks, the number of weekly subscribers via our paywalls increased by 425 per cent while non-subscriber traffic was not significantly affected.

“The growth continued and when the experiment’s three-month timeframe ended, manually paywalling content became continued practice,” say Vadnjal and Cooper.

The success of the strategy has led to the volume of content paywalled by the newsrooms growing from 11 to 40 per cent, with experiments continuing on the ratio of locked versus unlocked content to balance subscription growth while also providing content sampling to genuinely new audiences.

“Investigations, local news and education stories have been among our top converters, but so too have quizzes, magazine features, first-person piece, and our Good Food Guide’s list of best restaurants. We have also discovered niche content areas that may not attract a large audience, but with an audience that values it so highly they are willing to pay for it.

“Content that converts can also differ from content that we know engages our existing subscribers,” they say. “A story may push someone to sign up, but once with us, there are issues and topics that our audience expect us to cover as part of their subscription.

“For example, a feature from our premium Good Weekend magazine might persuade someone to pay, but they expect that with their subscription they will be served our reportage on federal politics, sport, and world issues and often engage most with this content once subscribed. These dual goals of retention and acquisition mean our newsrooms have to consider the value of each story we produce.”

Unlike the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, Nine Publishing’s national business masthead the Australian Financial Review does not have a metered paywall model to work with, but has still been able to take learnings from this experiment.

All the Financial Review’s content is locked behind a hard paywall. However, our marketing strategy allows some new readers to sample certain articles for free via search or social channels. “Using a similar process, we were able to test the impact of removing sampling on specific content by showing the paywall to all new readers.”

An early experiment saw this tried on select pieces from the 2023 ‘Young Rich List’, which traditionally gets high volumes of search and social referrals. “This resulted in a 50 per cent increase in paywall conversions year-on-year.

“We have since extended this experiment to a few of our flagship business columns, and continue to test and learn from the results.”

Conversion data for all the mastheads will be tracked in a new dashboard that looks at last-touch conversions from both metered and manually-paywalled articles.

“Tightening our paywalls has not only turbo-charged our subscription growth but also our audience-first strategy,” they say.

“A new subscription is a metric easily understood and valued by our newsrooms, which are now more invested than ever in understanding how our subscribers and potential subscribers interact with and value our journalism.

“One of our editors even joked that checking the number of conversions on a story is the first thing he does when he wakes up each morning. While we don’t expect everyone to be this obsessive over conversions, it’s rewarding to see such strong engagement with our overarching subscription goals.”


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