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In an effort to increase paid subscriptions, the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) last year began experimenting with changes to the mechanics of its paywall.
As part of its experimentation, the WSJ began limiting access to its content through Google's First Click Free program.
First Click Free allows publishers to have their paywalled content fully indexed by Google. In exchange, publishers agree to allow the first article requested by a reader through a Google News referral to be accessed without a subscription.
Under the First Click Free program, publishers are allowed to limit the number of articles that readers can access through Google referrals, but are required to allow users coming through Google to access a minimum of three free articles per day.
According to Google, First Click Free is the company's "preferred solution" for publishers that operate a paywall since "it can benefit both our users and our publisher partners. It allows Googlebot to fully index your content, which can improve the likelihood of users visiting your site; and it allows users to view the article of interest while also encouraging them to subscribe."
But apparently, the WSJ found that First Click Free isn't the best solution for driving subscriptions and, as explained by Digiday's Lucia Moses, will be abandoning First Click Free in its entirety this week, shutting out some of its non-paying readers, who have used the company's First Click Free participation as a loophole to access WSJ articles for free.
The WSJ initially switched off free access for 40% of its audience to test the impact on subscriber rates. It then switched off free access to four news sections entirely for two weeks, resulting in a whopping 86% jump in subscriptions. In the past three months of 2016, the WSJ saw a record jump in subscribers by 110,000 to 1.1m.
As well as the impact of the US election, this increase is attributed to a stronger paywall and better messaging. Specifically, the WSJ says that its subscription calls-to-action place pricing information front and center and that it reiterates the ability of subscribers to cancel at any time.
Built to last?
But the WSJ's subscriber growth probably isn't simply the result of tightening up free access to its content. Special offers, such as a $12 for 12 weeks deal, probably helped the WSJ convince a number of users to subscribe when they otherwise wouldn't have paid the nearly $400 annual price for print and digital access.
So it remains to be seen whether or not the WSJ's subscriber growth will be sustained, and how much it will be able to profit from subscribers who signed up for discounted access.
Of course, one might argue that while discounting has its risks, in the super-competitive environment publishers find themselves in today, it might be better to face retention challenges than acquisition challenges. After all, if the WSJ can acquire a new customer, even at a discount, it has already overcome perhaps its biggest hurdle: getting a consumer to pay for content.
Convincing a subscriber to stick around and pay more, although difficult, might be an easier hurdle to overcome.
Unlike most publishers, the WSJ generates more of its revenue from subscriptions than it does advertising, but even so, the company is being strategic about how it seeks to monetize its content.
"We had a paywall that's 20 years old and hadn’t really been changed," CMO Suzi Watford said. "We asked, how can we optimize it for subscription sales but continue to work for advertisers?”
For example, because video content is capable of generating higher ad revenue, the WSJ is keeping its video content outside of the paywall. And while the 127-year-old publisher is ditching Google's First Click Free program, it isn't totally removing the ability for individuals to access paywalled content without paying.
As a "membership benefit," articles shared through social media by WSJ subscribers will be accessible to non-subscribers free of charge.
That obviously means that the WSJ's paywall will still have holes in it, but it would appear that the company is getting smarter about where it places those holes and who it allows through them.