Don’t knock that wall down – Just open a window

July 21, 2016

The Financial Times recently made headlines of its own by dropping its paywall entirely in the immediate run-up to the “Brexit” vote on whether the U.K. should remain part of the European Union. Nominally offered as a public service—and who can argue that providing the paper’s world-class reportage and analysis of an important civic issue wasn’t a laudable public service—the paywall move was part of a larger, tightly choreographed exercise between marketing, user engagement, customer-acquisition and even editorial that spanned several days and reportedly led to a 600% spike in subscriptions over the period.

Bully for the FT! Give people access to your great content and they will come back for more—and they’ll bring their wallets with them.

We couldn’t agree more.

But not long after U.K. subjects voted to exit the EU the FT was back to walling off its content from anyone who doesn’t subscribe for at least a month and, in all likelihood, conversions returned to more typical levels.

FT Subscription Options

So why not ditch paywalls entirely or drop them, say, once a month? Obviously premium publishers can’t just throw open the gates indefinitely and rely on visitors to subscribe out of altruism or on banner ads, with their ever-shrinking CPMs, to make up the difference.

Maybe they could randomly serve up free samples that magically appear like a rare Vaporeon Pokemon? That seems a bit silly—and likely to bifurcate the audience into those repeatedly visiting in hopes of catching a free story and those too frustrated by the capriciousness of it all to ever come back.

Our research at qbeats suggests that there may be a constructive middle ground between tearing down the wall entirely and building one that takes huge effort and commitment to scale: Give visitors a window to peek through.

Based on early user testing, we found that readers who consumed news with a flexible PayWindow that lets them decide whether to pay a few cents to access a story or, alternatively, to unlock it by viewing an ad were positively disposed to subscribe—a prospective conversion rate of somewhere between 2- and 5-percent, versus the typical rate of less than 1-percent many publishers experience. Moreover, we found that the more content users consumed via the PayWindow, the more likely they were to subscribe.

Hats off to the FT’s brief Brexit experiment. We applaud all publishers looking for creative solutions to optimize the value of their digital traffic and this was a true omnichannel effort that appears to have been executed flawlessly. Moreover, as one commentator wrote, it “proved [the commercial] case for quality news journalism.” To further optimize and sustain that quality over the long term, we think publishers may want to open some windows.

Key takeaways:
- There’s financial opportunity in breaking news coverage and analysis of key events
- Complex choreography and planning are rewarded
- High-value content fosters engagement
- Experimentation can reveal news paths to conversion
- PayWindows can bridge the gap between “free” and inaccessible