How do sites with paywalls make sure that they’re still having an impact on social media?
For paywalled publishers, figuring out how to approach social media distribution can be a real head-scratcher.
How exactly do you make sure that you aren’t falling behind your free-to-read competitors, without giving away too much.
When we last reviewed the number of paywall sites in the top 100 sites on Facebook in May 2015, we found the numbers to be pretty low.
An updated look at the list in June 2016 shows that there’s been little change in the number of paywalled sites in the top list.
The 50 ‘most engaged’ English language sites on Facebook in June 2016, just four are actively paywalled: the New York Times, the Washington Post the Telegraph, and further down, the Financial Times. They’re all global names.
That’s not to say that the paywalled sites don’t attract significant engagement outside the top 100. In the US, the likes of the LA Times and Boston Globe do well on Facebook, while charging for their material. Magazine sites like the New Yorker can attract high levels of social engagement around their writing. Likewise, The Economist explained to us earlier this year that they see platforms like Facebook and LinkedIn as a means of introducing their content to a wider audience of ‘globally curious’ readers.
The picture in other markets
On a more localised basis, we see that language has a major impact on the adoption of paywalls by larger social sites.
Looking at our rankings of the biggest sites in Latin America, most are legacy outlets that have a dominant digital market share in their country.
We’ve also seen this in our rankings of European sites in the past. In Germany for instance, although leading site Focus is paywall-free, other major publishers such as BILD, Der Spiegel, Die Welt and Süddeutsche Zeitung all maintain paywalls, while being in the top ten. It’s a similar scenario in Sweden and France.
Although these sites don’t achieve the same levels of engagement as some of the global English language sites, for their market size, they attract significant attention in news feeds.
How paywalled sites can make an impact on social media
There’s a simple reason why we see so few paywalled sites in the top social media rankings.
Non-paywalled sites aim to reach as wide an audience as possible to support their business model. This often involves an aggressive social distribution strategy, which nowadays more than likely means native content, and trying to build their brand across different platforms, from Apple News to Snapchat.
Many paywalled sites try this too, but find it harder to do at scale than their free competitors. At some point there is a balancing process between giving away too much of their content for free, and reaching a mass audience. (There are exceptions – the paywalled Washington Post also makes their stories available for free via Instant Articles).
Secondly, there are simply less paywalled sites online. Getting people to subscribe to your site is a difficult proposition, at least if you’re just starting out. As we see in other language markets, the lower proliferation of free competitors means that sites that have a well-established paywall are higher up on the rankings.
In general, there has been a shift in how paywalled sites see the role of social media. While still important, the ‘porous’ model that allows for multiple free reads per month, is being pared back by many publishers. In a recent interview, Financial Times Managing Editor Robert Shrimsley explained that they saw better results with getting readers to agree to a £1 trial.
One area we might see more movement from paywalled sites on social media is around major events that have specific timely relevance to their audience. We’ve already seen some US news sites drop paywalls in the wake of disasters and other major breaking news events, to help fulfil their journalistic mission, but also compete in a frenzied news cycle. But what about other major events? How about making World Cup final coverage free-to-read, or capitalising on major tech or business news by pushing out free coverage and analysis? During these times, tying in with the social media team is vital.
The Financial Times, who had a very strong month on Facebook in June, temporarily dropped the paywall on their Brexit-related coverage during the referendum. Their social media team took advantage of the move, with traffic to their Instant Articles rising by 500 percent. Readers also clicked through to the main website in their droves.
With extra eyes on the site, digital subscriptions that weekend rose by an eye-watering 600 percent.
As revenue strategies for publishers evolve, we might see new types of paywall options for consumers. One thing remains key though: ensuring that the content that your site is serving is to the highest standard possible.