Will More Paywalls Lead to Better Content?

Article ImageWe've all been there. You visit a website looking for information, movies, or other digital content and find a few freebies. Eventually, however, you run into a request for registration or, more substantially, a request to pay for additional content.

DigiCareers, a website that provides job listings for those in the media industry, recently released survey results examining the impact of paywalls on current consumers. By sending emails to a random selection of its 30,000 members, DigiCareers received a 78% participation rate, using the feedback of 200 individuals. Some experts found the results surprising.

Among the most interesting results from the DigiCareers paywall survey is that, while 52% of those questioned immediately leave a site when they encounter a paywall, 42% explore prices and consider a purchase decision. "Generally, what this is telling me is that people are more trusting of paywalls," says Lee Smith, analyst for DigiCareers and the lead on the paywall survey. "I think this is good information for someone thinking of using paywalls to direct revenue to their business."

Val Swisher, founder and CEO of Content Rules, Inc., was surprised by the statistic. "More people are staying than I would have expected," she says. "What that says to me is that there is a market for information that people need or want. We might not have considered it a market before."

It's important to note that statistics from the DigiCareers paywall survey lump all digital content and paywalls into one result. Social media specialist Cassie Witt points out that these statistics may be more like a generalization. "I'd be interested to find out what the difference in percentages is for a company that provides digital movies against one, like mine [cassiewitt.com], that provides training and tutorial-based content," she notes. "Is this the same? Is it completely different? I suspect it's the latter, because the mindset for people visiting those sites is completely different."

Witt goes on to explain that consumers seeking digital movies are looking to watch movies immediately and, unless they pirate them, are going to purchase them from the first reputable site they encounter. Conversely, those looking for tutorial sites are in research mode and may check other sites for free content before making a final decision. "I feel like they're doing a disservice to digital content providers when they try to lump everyone into one big category," Witt concludes. "Yes, it's true that it's all digital content, but the buyer mindset is different for each site."

Ninety percent of those surveyed by DigiCareers expect some free content on websites prior to encountering a paywall. When a company considers the use of a paywall to increase revenue, determining how to structure it is the No. 1 issue.

Brett Curry, CEO of Online Marketing Giant in Springfield, Mo., believes that the use of a paywall depends upon what the company is selling overall. "The question always has to be asked: What will benefit our company the most? The exposure, traffic, and recognition we could generate by giving this content away for free, or the revenue we could generate by charging membership fees?" Curry explains.

He mentions the ESPN website as a prime example of a successful paywall structure, offering scores, highlights, and other basics for free but requiring a premium membership for exclusive interviews and reports. "So, as a free user, I go back to the site a lot, but every now and then I'm tempted to pay for that insider membership. I think even membership sites should give as much away for free as they can to drive traffic and create highly engaged visitors. Even visitors that continue to come for the free content might be persuaded to pony up for the membership if the right offer is presented," he says.

Smith believes that businesses should err on the side of giving away too much rather than being too restrictive because consumers are used to getting free content. He also believes that companies should offer both subscription-based paywalls and paywalls for individual pieces of content, giving more latitude to the visitors and readers.

"Companies need to provide enough information that leaves people wanting more," says Swisher. "It's not really a matter of how much, but what it is you put out there. You want to grab your customers and differentiate yourself. You don't want to give away the store, but you want to entice people to go through the paywall."

Jennifer Hofer, owner of Plum Tree Communications in Bellevue, Wash., agrees that incentive works. "For models where there's a high likelihood of repeat purchases, maybe every third article is free. Or content older than 1 year is free and only the premier new stuff costs money," she explains.

The increasing prevalence of paywalls will certainly have an impact on those who create digital content, and experts believe that the perception of what quality content consists of must adapt. "The quality of content better improve," says Hofer of what paywalls mean to the digital content industry. "When I see thin logic, scarce support of claims and statistics, and just plain old terrible writing, I complain. So, yes, when Plum Tree Communications is responsible for writing something that will come with a price tag, I make sure it's something I'd be willing to pay for myself."

"I think that, because of the ease of publishing digital content, a lot of companies have lost track of the fact that you need to have quality content," Swisher says. "I think that there is now an imperative to create quality content and to focus real attention (and real dollars) on the content that you are selling to your public. So much content creation has become commoditized and sent off to where it's the cheapest to produce, so the upper management's mindset of what is ‘good enough' has plummeted. It's just going to come back to bite you. If you're going to have a paywall, then you're going to have to have compelling, quality content. Period." 

("Crumbling Wall" courtesy of Shutterstock.)