Social and search platforms have a newfound reason to support digital news subscriptions. But how are paywalled sites performing generally on social media?

This week, Google announced that it has developed a new product called ‘Subscribe with Google’ specifically for the digital publishing industry. Subscribe with Google allows logged-in Google users to sign up for subscription packages from participating sites quickly, and via AMP pages. Meanwhile, Apple News also seems committed to the subscription end of publishing, steadily driving more traffic to certain news sites, as well as buying up magazine app Texture, to help grow its publishing product offering.

That’s on top of new features tested by Facebook in October (and launched this month), which aimed increasing publishers’ ability to generate subscriptions through the new feed. As we put it on the blog when that feature was announced last year:

Engagement and traffic have long been the predominant yardstick of success for publishers on social media platforms. There’s a 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.

With the increased movement in the subscription space from the likes of Apple, Google and Facebook, it’s obvious that the digital publishing dynamic has shifted from a few years ago, when paywalled sites were struggling to compete for visitors with mass audience sites.

The audience potential afforded to paywall and subscription-based sites on these vital distribution channels now seems to be on the rise. In the rankings of the most engaged websites on Facebook in February 2018, 14 of the top 100 sites have some kind of paid subscription involved in their reading. That’s up from six in May 2015. Many more of the top sites also have some kind of premium option for readers to subscribe to, while others still (most notably the Guardian), are actively requesting donations or membership fees from readers.

To get a deeper sense of how paywalled sites have fared on Facebook and other social platforms in terms of engagement and attention over the last year, we took a closer look at the numbers from NewsWhip Analytics.

Looking at the five most engaged paywalled English language sites on Facebook in February 2017, based on total engagements on web content published that month, we see that their engagement rates have stayed steady or only decreased marginally since summer 2017. That’s in comparison to more dramatic drops from viral sites, especially since the news feed algorithm changes that were announced in January.
paywalls on social media.
We can see that engagement has declined somewhat for the New York Times and the Washington Post, but not all that dramatically, and certainly not on the scale of some of the smaller viral publishers in the top 25. Meanwhile, paywalled publishers The Onion, Wall Street Journal and the LA Times, all with distinct target audiences, all essentially maintained a reassuring equilibrium during the time frame.

It’s not to say that the visibility of paywalled sites still isn’t in the minority overall, particularly on Facebook. Viral sites pop into the rankings regularly, and it can be argued that some probably do more harm than good for the image of the publishing industry at large.

For subscription-based sites, however, the focus is increasingly on extracting the most value out of each distribution channel (whether email, social, or search), rather than assuming that vast one-off spurts on traffic will somehow result in people will decide to subscribe.

In non-English language markets, the trend of news subscription purchases is already well underway, which is perhaps partly attributable to the reduced publishing competition from free online news sources. In Norway for instance, 26 percent of adults now pay for news online, according to the Reuters Institute for Digital Journalism. Some European countries such as Germany have long had their most popular publishers on Facebook consist of paywalled legacy media sites.

For the adherents of mass distribution, there’s still plenty of successful examples to take note of. But one thing is increasingly clear; to succeed at scale, it helps to be able to produce a lot of content every day. The top three most engaged sites in February 2018 were network broadcasters (NBC, Fox News, and CNN) each producing thousands of stories each month.

The same is true for the newspapers that also appeared highly, such as the Daily Mail and the Guardian, as well as digital natives like the Huffington Post. While these sites are still competing strongly for engagements and audience generally, not every free site can compete as easily. Political site The Hill is perhaps the last general news publisher to carve out a consistent niche for itself amongst the top sites on Facebook, and it also produces a lot of content every month. 

What next for subscriptions on platforms?

After a number of years of apparent unwillingness to create any sort of friction in user experience at all, there are numerous signs that platforms are quickly rethinking that approach. That’s likely at least partly down to the impact that the spread of disinformation and the viral impact of spurious news sources have had on users’ trust of platforms, as well as contributing to a lot of negative publicity for social media companies over the last year.

Many paywalled sites have long argued that platforms generally needed to do more to help support their preferred business model, and now it looks like they’re seeing their message get through. The latest raft of announcements indicates that platforms have started to realise that in many cases, there’s more to be gained by developing features to aid subscriptions, rather than sticking to the idea that users being directed to any source whatsoever, as long as it was open and free, is always the best solution.

It remains to be seen how the relationship between the two pans out, but it seems certain that for an influential cohort of sites, the tide has turned firmly in the favour of subscription-based business models.
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