Will people pay for news subscriptions on Facebook? Three questions for publishers to consider.

October 23, 2017

Written by NewsWhip

With Facebook’s subscription service for news launching, we take a look at some of the crucial questions publishers will be asking of the format. 

Getting people to pay for news and other content may seem like a contradiction on a famously free platform like Facebook.

But that’s exactly what a host of paywalled publishers will be hoping for when Facebook’s first effort at adding a subscription limit to Instant Articles goes live in the near future.  

Initial partner publishers are said to include the Washington Post and the Economist, Tronc titles including the LA Times, and some European sites.  

It’s part of a broader move by platforms and publishers to lock down easy access to paywalled content through side-door hacks. Google plans to end its ‘first click free’ feature, and many publishers now require readers to register their details to read more than a limited number of stories per month, as well as disabling ad-blockers on their sites.

Publishers dependent at any level on subscription based income are tightening up access points wherever possible.

But the Facebook paywall differs in that it proposes to present a paywall to a huge audience that didn’t explicitly sign up for news on the service in the first place. Other news platforms such as Apple News, and Google News, differ. The former is a pre-installed app designed specifically to curate content, the latter requires an explicit expression of interest in the form of a search query from the user.

In other words, the appeal of news as an ‘add-on’ to social media usage has yet to be properly tested. And as the social platform with by far the largest active user base, Facebook is the most meaningful place it’s going to work.

On paper, it’s a great idea for sites, but publishers won’t be pivoting their entire business model just yet.  
When Instant Articles launched to much curiosity over two years ago, there was an anticipation that the format could radically alter social reading habits, and lead to more engaged readerships, eventually becoming a standard publishing format. Two years on, the reality is somewhat different.

So apart from the obvious question of whether this will lead to more paid subscriptions, here are three points that publishers will be watching closely as the strategy takes effect. 

1. What percentage of Instant Article readers will get hit with the paywall on Facebook?

As part of the new measure, media analyst Ken Doctor reports that Facebook have held firm on ensuring that users will be allowed ten free Instant Articles per month before being paywalled.

This makes a lot of sense from the users’ point of view, at least initially. The user gets to flick through the stories to see if they like the content, and build a reading habit which the publisher hopes will lead to some kind of brand affinity.

Boston Globe paywall
However, for many paywall publishers in 2017 is that ten articles per month is probably a tad too generous. For instance, the Boston Globe now just offer two articles every 45 days, while the Economist requires readers to register an account to read a handful of free articles monthly.  

This is because the number of monthly users who hit paywalls with higher article limits can be quite low, reducing the pool of potential total subscribers. 

On Facebook, publishers will need to consider how many users are reading more than ten Instant Articles per month to get an idea of how many readers will see the paywall. Trends taken from regular site visitor data may very well not apply here. 

2. What number of Instant Articles will be seen as a meaningful number to make a worthwhile test?

Following on from the above point, publishers will need to consider if they need to adjust the number of Instant Articles they post each month in order to get a meaningful sample on subscribers.

Few publishers post every article in the instant format, with some only using it for particular stories (op-eds, or visual-heavy stories). What will be the right balance to strike in publishing Instant Articles? Too few and it’s hard to scale reader habits to the level where a meaningful number of people see the paywall. Too many and it risks diluting premium content and just ending up going ‘all in’ with the format.

It follows that most publishers will want to be able to experiment with adjusting the freebie count themselves, in order to hit an agreeable ratio.

3. What dynamics are different in Facebook subscribers versus regular website subscribers?

When readers subscribe to news sites through carefully constructed landing pages targeted by region, site section, or entry point, the publisher is in control of the process every step of the way, and can adapt and tweak the process to ease the passage of the potential subscriber.

Some publishers offer deals to new subscribers based around specific events, or their location. For the sake of consistency, publishers will expect the same metrics and insight into any possible subscriptions that come via Facebook.

Experimenting with what might be attractive to visitors from Facebook might be worth considering here. What effects might be different to attracting subscribers via a regular email or website campaign?

There may also be content particular elements at play on Facebook. For instance, NewsWhip data has shown that particular coverage such as environmental issues and op-eds from certain publishers are particularly popular on Facebook. Are more subscriptions likely to come via particular strands of reporting? How can publishers capitalise on that phenomenon without deviating from their standard paywall strategy?

Also tied into this is the reaction that heavy Instant Articles users may have to the new paywall. There are undoubtedly Facebook users who have been happily enjoying regular publisher-approved access to Instant Articles. Now after reading their monthly quota, these users are going to be directed to a new paywall. Publishers will need to monitor how this may affect their future engagement with Instant Articles. 

What next?

Whatever happens, the addition of any form of paywall to Facebook is a significant milestone in social publishing.

Engagement and traffic has long been the predominant yardstick of success for publishers on social media platforms. There’s good reason for that too. Making an effort to build a good relationship with a large and potentially untapped audience makes sense, even if the payoff isn’t immediately obvious. All journalists want their work to be read and viewed by people who are interested in it.

But in the meantime, things have been happening off platforms. Lots of publishers have been seeing more value and success in getting consumers to pay for news, and have been busy optimising to build on that trend.

Many in the media industry will see even the introduction of a paywall onto a platform like Facebook as progress in associating premium digital journalism with payment. It’s an indication of where things could be heading generally in the media industry. 

To see what captivates audiences on web vs. native platforms, take a demo of NewsWhip Analytics today.

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