The New Paywall Is “Bendable”: How the Wall Street Journal Grew Subscribers by More Than 30 Percent

27 Apr 2018 | By Tobias Arns

Publishers face the ever growing challenge of declining ad revenue due to market-dominating platforms like Google, Facebook, and Amazon. And with so much free content for easy consumption and changing user behavior it is a serious challenge for publishers to sell digital subscriptions, stop the decline and grow revenues. Part of this challenge is that publishers over the years have adopted paywalls that are static and one-size-fits-all, ignoring that readers behave have different interests and propensity to subscribe.

Over the years, publishers have tried out various paywall models, but they all have challenges:

  • Hard paywall: Publishers that implement a hard paywall usually rely on a high amount of loyal, regular readers who know the publication well. Readers without a keen interest in the product will typically leave after seeing the paywall for the first time and never return.

  • Metered Access: This approach assumes that readers can be attracted to subscribe over time by allowing free access to some content. The free articles are selected by the publisher based on their ability to generate subscribers. But when you are using subscription triggering articles for this purpose - why give away so many and why give the same articles to every reader? And how do you expect readers to buy a supscription for premium content they aren't able to see or sample?

  • Freemium: A similar approach to metered access with similar challenges.

What these common models have in common is that they behave the same regardless of who interacts with the site. Furthermore, they are putting the content first, not the user. In other words they place the burden of generating subscriptions on the content alone, ignoring the huge boosts in subscription growth that data-driven, real-time personalization can generate.

The Wall Street Journal's paywall, however, powered by Cxense technology, is different and has proven to be much more successful than the traditional approaches. 

Subscription and data analytics experts at The Wall Street Journal asked themselves:

  • Which readers are most likely to convert to subscribers?

  • Which readers should receive which kind of subscription offer?

  • When exactly should these readers receive an offer?

Three key elements for rapid subscription growth

  1. It's the data, stupid! Publishers that start to personalize their user experience usally begin with with anonymous first party data. It all begins with collecting, interpreting and actioning on the data coming from your own sites. Publishers often have plenty of raw data available, but many struggle to create the kind of insights that your subscriptions team can understand and use to attract and retain more subscribers. Applying cutting-edge technology and machine learning algorithms to raw data provides publishers with tremendous insight about each individual reader's behaviour on your sites and their propensity to subscribe.
  2. Use personalization to drive interest. Each reader needs to be treated as an individual, not as an audience or segment member. True personalization that can be controlled in real-time by editorial and business users (not by the IT department) enables you to show exactly those articles that are the most relevant and to a given reader. Over time, this increases engagement and the probability of subscribing. High-end personalization solutions use algorithms that can learn which settings work best and automatically optimize the user experience.

  3. Individualize the paywall. Experience shows that the amount of article views needed to convert vary greatly from reader to reader and that long-term interest and context also play a significant role. Personalized on-site messages have proven to be very good conversion drivers. Therefore, in order to yield optimal conversion results, the paywall should be dynamic and personalized in terms of timing, context and offers. Ideally, the personalization engine can also categorize readers automatically according to their propensity to subscribe. In practice this means that some users can consume quite a few articles before receiving a subscription offer while others will experience a hard paywall after a few visits already. 

Once you have implemented these elements, you are on a good way to understanding your readers' interest and their likelihood of becoming a subscriber. 

The Wall Street Journal made the switch to a dynamic paywall by following these four steps:

  • Adopt a reader first / customer first perspective (instead of content first)

  • Deploy an Intelligent Data Layer to gain in-depth insight in how your readers interact with your content

  • Implement automated propensity scoring for your non-subscribed readers based on advanced data analytics and machine learning
  • Grow subscriptions without sacrificing ad revenue by implementing a dynamic paywall

Katie Vanneck Smith, President and Chief Customer Officer at Dow Jones, puts it this way: “We have had tremendous success with using audience data and real time personalization to convert online readers to members using Cxense software.”

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