Many major newspapers, in an attempt to improve digital revenues, have implemented paywalls of varying severity. 

I've been looking at US and UK newspaper sites to see which approaches are likely to be most effective in converting visitors into subscribers...

The criteria: 

The content is, of course, all important, but here I'm looking at how sites introduce their subscription options and how they sell the packages to potential customers. 

The criteria includes: 

  • Announcing the paywall. How do sites announce the fact of the paywall? 
  • Free tasters / teasers. Do sites offer some free content or previews before the paywall comes down? 
  • Explanation of the proposition. How clearly is the price and package announced initially? 
  • Comparison of different packages. How effectively do sites explain the features and prices of different plans? 
  • Explanation of benefits. Why should people subscribe? What will they get? 
  • Trust/support. Are FAQs and contact details offered for people with doubts/questions? 

Newspaper paywalls

As most people will hit paywalls through individual articles rather than the homepage, I've seen how each site deals with this. 

Daily Telegraph

The Telegraph has a metered paywall which allows you to read 20 articles per month before hitting the barrier.

This is by device, so I could use a different laptop, iPad, phone etc and read more if I wanted to. 

It's a good way to let users get a taste of the content, it also ensures that Google can index its pages, and it doesn't inhibit social sharing. 

For example, the DT is the second most tweeted newspaper after The Guardian, while The Sun and The Times, with stricter paywalls, barely figure. 

When you've reached your limit, you'll see a lightbox which forces you to take action. Either to login, checkout the subscription options, or hit the back button:

Perhaps this is a temporary error, but the subscription packages don't display properly, which is a dead end for users.

Features like this need to work well and be optimised to avoid loss of revenue. 

Having navigated my way to the options page, I have a simple comparison table, which displays the various options. 

It looks good, and calls to action and prices are clear at a glance. 

The benefits of each package are laid out clearly while there are links to see more details about each package. 

The detail is there, as well as a list of FAQs, but a contact number or live chat option might help the newspaper to sell or upsell more packages. 

The Sun

No messing here, you get the headline of the article, a sentence and a picture before you see the paywall notice. 

It's an approach which allows no previews of content, and which effectively says 'no, thanks' to the majority of potential search and social traffic. 

The Sun does more to sell its subscription on the page than The Telegraph, showing benefits of membership, like free football shirts and apps. 

The subscription details page does a lot to sell the extras which come with membership. These include perks like holiday discounts, apps and football highlights. 

It does a good job with the FAQs, while the live chat and other contact options are a great idea for potential subscribers who need a little reassurance. 

The Times

It's a similar approach to The Sun, as you would expect. It teases you with a tiny bit more text but that's it.

The subscription page is huge and covers just about every question users might ask. Perhaps there's too much there, but that's something for The Times' team to test. 

The features and benefits of different packages are well laid out, and benefits such as access to archive content are publicised. 

I also like the live chat popups which provide an option for potential subscribers with questions. There's also a prominent phone number for the same purpose. 

The Times provides a 'subscription builder' tool, which is something the other sites don't have.

You select your preferences, such as preferred medium for reading news, whether you share with partners or family, and which sections you prefer. 

 

The tool then uses existing user data to find the most suitable package. In theory, this should produce better recommendations, and allow users an alternative to consuming the vast amount of information on the landing page. 

FT.com

FT offers three free articles per month, but only if users register. It isn't the worst sign up process, though any registration can be a big enough barrier to deter users. 

In the case of FT, this may be no bad thing, as it deters people the company is not interested in selling to. 

This option seems to have preserved a decent level of social sharing activity for the site, with an average of 61,000 tweets per week, almost ten times as many as The Times. 

Visiting a page without having registered or logged in brings up this pop-up comparison table: 

The different features and prices are laid out clearly, along with calls to action to select. 

From here, FT.com gets straight down to business and users are on the payment page.

Phone numbers are offered for anyone with queries, but otherwise it's designed to get people through the funnel as quickly as possible with a one page checkout. 

It's an interesting approach, and contrasts with the amount of effort and detail which goes into The Times' subscription pages.

Perhaps it's an indication of the comparative ease of selling FT.com, which is selling detailed business information rather than general news. 

New York Times

NYT has attempted to cover all bases with its soft paywall. Site users can access 10 free articles per month before they hit a paywall. 

However, the number of articles which can be viewed depends on the source. Readers can access up to 25 articles a day via search engines, and no paywall is imposed on social media traffic. 

The paper is clearly not prepared to weaken its reach in the hunt for digital revenues. 

Once you do reach your limit, this is what you see: 

The popup leads to more detail on subscription packages. As on FT.com,there's not a huge amount of detail here.

Perhaps the paper relies on the potential subscriber's knowledge of its content and feels it doesn't have to try so hard. 

From this screen, users are straight into a one page checkout, which requires the bare minimum of details to place the order: 

 

What is working? 

In general, newspapers have been coy about revealing numbers, but we've seen some reports this past year or so. The information is incomplete though. 

Evidence suggests that soft paywalls like The Telegraph's, which allow some free access, are better for user retention than hard paywalls as employed by The Times. 

A recent report found that publishers with hard paywalls are experiencing retention rates as low as 15-20%, with the figure for soft walls averaging 58%. 

This suggests that a hybrid approach is best for maintaining user numbers, social reach and search traffic, as well as pleasing advertisers.

It may also be the best way to attract new customers. After all, if users are familiar with the type of content, it's easier to decide on a subscription. 

I've looked for figures on each of these sites' digital revenues, and here's what I found: 

  • FT.com.  The FT’s total circulation grew 10% year-on-year to over 700,000 across print and online, the highest paying readership in its 126-year history.

    Digital readership grew strongly, with online subscribers increasing 23% year-on-year to 476,000, representing more than two-thirds of the FT’s total audience. The FT has a global print circulation of 222,239.

  • Telegraph Media Group reported an operating profit of £55m in 2014 and an increase in digital revenues, but was short on the detail. 
  • The Times reported a £1.7m profit for the year to June 2014, with digital subscriptions accounting for 291,000 (54%) of the Times’s and 338,000 (35%) of the Sunday Times' total. 
  • The New York Times reported in October that digital-only subscribers  increased by 44,000 during Q3, the best quarterly digital subscriber growth in nearly two years. The newspaper now has 875,000 digital-only subscribers.
  • The Sun doubled digital subscriber numbers to 225,000 in 2014, though that's all we know at the moment. 

Of the subscription pages, I think The Times offers the best information and sells the benefits of its packages, while tools like live chat and clear contact options provide support for any potential subscribers with any questions. 

However, it may be that the less information, faster checkout approach favoured by FT.com and the New York Times is more effective.

The bottom line for all these sites is how much money they can earn from digital subscriptions.

However, I wonder what the long term effects of hard paywalls will be. Will the lack of search visibility, social reach and overall traffic make it harder for these publications to attract new subscribers in the long term?  

Graham Charlton

Published 26 January, 2015 by Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton is the former Editor-in-Chief at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter or connect via Linkedin or Google+

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Comments (2)

Daniel Gilbert

Daniel Gilbert, CEO at Brainlabs

Great summary, thanks Graham. I'm cautious about reading too much into published financials but those profit numbers for Telegraph vs The Times look quite telling, despite the latter arguably having a stronger brand.

over 3 years ago

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mastufa ahmed, online editor at 9.9 Media

Useful analysis. However, a comparison table depicting the good and bad sides of all media houses featured will really help.

over 3 years ago

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