In 1997 when journalism was under siege, the Wall Street Journal was one of the first publications to retreat behind a paywall. Uncomfortable with surrendering ground the paper delivered an ultimatum – read it here, or read it nowhere. They were joined by The Times, The Financial Times and a few other publications. Alas, fortune did not favour the brave…
Readers were unfamiliar with the idea and, faced with such brinksmanship, simply opted to read elsewhere. The Times lost 90% of its readership within a year. The destination game was being comprehensively won by Facebook, Twitter and Google. Resistance seemed futile.
Readers who had once been taken for granted now needed to be convinced, and this was true for both broadsheets and magazines, in fact it was soon true for all content marketing including video and audio as well. With this mission in mind, WSJ began testing out different temptation tactics to improve the customer journey. The paper made it possible for members, subscribers and journal staffers to share articles un-hindered by a pay wall; so anything shared from your favourite journalist’s twitter feed was free to access. Twenty four hour guest passes for non subscribers would pop up on particular articles. Full access for a day or two was granted so long as you you gave up your e mail address. What did the WSJ gain? First party data. What you like, how long you read for, and where to contact you…
Meanwhile ad-revenue was beginning to stagnate. Advertisers naturally saw less incentive to advertise on pages of Cosmopolitan, either digitally or in print, when most people were reading the magazine’s articles via Facebook and Twitter. This meant that brands with a least some kind of pay wall protected, loyal clientele at least had a baseline of revenue. The idea of a mixed monetisation strategy began to emerge – a little from subscription, a little from print, a lot from advertising.
Then came 2016 and the year of misinformation. Suddenly Facebook seemed suspicious. There was no editor, there was no organisation, it was a wild west of lies and sensation. Google and Facebook were ethic-free data monsters who were now frequently being called before congress. Readers scampered back toward reputable destinations. The New York Times resurged, the Guardian returned to profit. Trust was restored. Meanwhile, as the game began to shift, the WSJ’s pay wall was learning more and more.
Jump forward to 2020 and the Wall Street Journal is sitting pretty. Patience has paid off. These intelligent pay walls give readers what they want, while reinforcing the reputation of the brand. As you engage with WSJ’s pay wall you’re given a propensity score, effectively a quantified valuation of your likelihood to subscribe. If you’re at the top end you hit a hard pay wall, if they think you’re still a long way off committing, you’re allowed a little for free. The pay wall quantifies the CLV and makes an offer dependent on that. In this way, as the pay wall learns, it also guarantees that no eager reader goes unsubscribed. There’s a considerable amount of churn reduction, and a much more reliable income stream is established that doesn’t rely on changeable digital advertising. In 2015 the FT moved to a dynamic pay wall and as early as 2016 was taking more money from subscriptions than advertising and three quarters of readers were digital.
The pay wall feeds an addiction for the things you can’t live without (e.g.sports commentary, or financial news) and uses this as a gateway drug for the annual subscription. This analogy of addiction isn’t ours by the way – in the words of Financial Times CEO John Ridding the question has always been ‘how do you build a habit?’.