Do paywalls kill publishers’ chances of success on social media? It’s not that straightforward, as we find out…
When today’s news about Verizon’s acquisition of AOL broke, the Wall Street Journal seemed best placed to tell the story.
It looked like they had been briefed on the details of the sale ahead of some competitors, and had the most detail immediately after the story broke. In Spike, we saw their report attract impressive levels of social engagement:
With solid reporting and good social distribution, the WSJ had managed to stamp some form of ownership on the story early on. That was despite the fact that when readers clicked through, they were asked to subscribe for the full story.
The assumption that getting people to pay for your content ends all chances of getting heavy social engagement isn’t completely true.
Some of the biggest publishers on social, as measured by our data, have some form of paywall.
What matters is each publishers’ willingness to engage with new readers on different platforms. How the publisher is pushing content and brand awareness on Facebook and other platforms can make all the difference in driving engagement, referrals, and ultimately, subscriptions. With attention increasingly shifting to platform impressions, a strong social media presence could all the more relevant for publishers thinking about future monetisation options.
We looked at the top 100 Twitter and Facebook publishers of January 2015 to see how many had paywalls, partial or otherwise.
Note: These numbers didn’t include sites that charge subscriptions for tablet editions of their print product.
The numbers weren’t that high. Of the paywall sites that did make it into the top 100 on each, almost all had the porous model, and included the likes of the New York Times, the Onion, and the Seattle Times. Apart from allowing social media users to click through and read for free, what each of these sites had in common was a strong social strategy.
We went further, taking a closer look at three different paywall models: Hard, Porous, and ‘Freemium’.
The Hard Paywall
A hard paywall does exactly what it says – it asks readers for a subscription in order to continue reading any article on the site, regardless of their point of entry.
Some of the best-known examples are the Sun and Times in the UK.
On the face of it, both of these sites see low levels of social engagement each month compared to other national UK titles. Here were the Sun’s biggest stories for April, ranked by Facebook shares:
They’re a long way off the biggest stories posted by some of their UK tabloid rivals, such as the Mirror. However, it seems as though there could be changes afoot in this direction – the recent UK election saw the Sun launch their SunNation spin-off, which was free to access, and very socially-focussed.
And there are other ways of approaching social with a big paywall. Although you can register to read some articles for free each month on the Financial Times’ site, the number is so low that it probably qualifies as a hard paywall.
Despite this, the FT make use of their social channels, offering a number of stories each week for free and posting native video to Facebook and Twitter. Just yesterday, they announced that they would be allowing one free click to each Facebook account – which can then be shared back.
We’ll be looking to see if this strategy leads to any significant increase in their Facebook engagements in the coming months.
The porous model allows a set number of articles per month to be read before they’re hit with a sign-up page. It’s a popular option for many US news sites in particular, as well being adopted by satirical site the Onion.
Sites with the porous model include The New York Times, the Boston Globe, Seattle Times, LA Times, Washington Post and Daily Telegraph.
The idea is that you harness readers from social media, using those platforms to build awareness of your site as a source of content. For sites that allow unlimited social click-throughs, it’s possible to compete with paywall-less sites for social engagement – meaning that Facebook and Twitter becomes the homepage in a big way.
In this regard, the New York Times’ 16.6 million Twitter followers and 9.4 million Facebook fans act as valuable conduits to the main site. As a consequence, they’ve been the second biggest site on Twitter for the past few months, and even had the most-tweeted story globally in October 2014.
The Freemium model is popular across Europe, with big names like Bild (Germany) and El Mundo (Spain) managing to balance subscriptions with strong social presence.
The idea behind the Freemium model is that free articles push readers towards more high quality content (such as video, sport highlights and analysis) behind a paywall.
European markets have a much higher proportion of legacy media sites (which are more likely to feature paywalls) than in the US. For instance, the vast majority of the top 10 German sites on Facebook in March (apart from the German language Huffington Post) are legacy media sites, with the biggest, Bild, pushing a freemium subscription.
Here were the numbers for Bild’s biggest Facebook stories in January 2015:
Many of these sites are experimenting with new ways of harnessing social media to attract readers. One popular way of doing this is through spin-offs aimed directly at younger readers on social media. These sites often focus on viral content, and reach huge audiences on mobile and social media, introducing news readers to the brand and allowing experimentation and learning to take place for the main site.
One example is ‘Lajkat‘ from Aftonbladet (which is also a Freemium publisher), currently the biggest Swedish publisher on Facebook. Despite only launching last year, Lajkat accounted for over a quarter of Aftonbladet’s total Facebook interactions in April 2015.
Overall, it seems as though offering a small number of stories for free each month, and making sure that your site is part of the conversation in whatever niche your readers find themselves in is one way of balancing a paywall with social relevance.
However, porous sites can’t assume their free social click-throughs will do all the work – they’ve still got to compete with sites that have built their entire audience from a social base.
For those with the hard paywall, there’s a different challenge. How do you stay part of the online conversation, while maintaining the subscription model? They aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive, but finding the balance can change from site to site.
As ever, experimentation, data and social strategy are vital.