It’s Time to Rethink Your Association’s Relationship With Its Paywall

Associations have long used paywalls to their advantage. But there are strategic opportunities for tapping nondues revenue that they could be leaving on the table.

By Eric Goodstadt

When it comes to content, associations and media outlets face the same conundrum: What should go behind a paywall? And what type of paywall should we use?

The tactics vary significantly: A “freemium” approach, in which readers are asked (but not forced) to pay, was common on news sites for years; a “hard paywall,” in which all content is gated unless you subscribe or join, tends to be favored by membership groups. And as technology has shifted, so have tactics.

More recently, the metered paywall, which tracks the number of articles read and asks people to pay when they hit a limit, has gained popularity on news sites, along with the “regwall,” which requires registration before you can read or continue to do so. These approaches can be combined as needed.

A Shift in Paywall Approaches

News outlets traditionally have leaned on the freemium approach, perhaps putting specialized or niche content behind a subscriber wall. Associations, meanwhile, have tended to have strong paywalls for much of their content as a part of their traditional member offerings.

But now, both groups are shifting a bit. The news industry has begun to reset its paywall strategy, gating more of its content, while associations increasingly are looking for ways to move beyond their membership offerings in the hunt for nondues revenue.

That’s a good thing—because the signs for growth are there. According to the most recent edition of Association Media & Publishing’s Association Publishing Benchmarking Study, 47 percent of respondents said digital advertising was the fastest-growing area for revenue growth. A too-tough paywall could cost you opportunities to raise more revenue.

Paywall Conundrum: Finding the Right Balance

Here’s the reality: Too much content behind a paywall can harm your opportunities to reach potential members, to tell your organization’s story to the public, and to raise important voices in your industry or sector. Too little can cost you strategic advantages. It’s complicated. What should you do?

Given the shifting use of paywalls and how your members are experiencing them in the wild, it’s probably time to do a quick analysis of what works and what doesn’t, make changes, and then course-correct as needed.

Here are four strategic insights to help you evaluate your paywall program:

Take a good, hard look at the data.

Your content should be driven by a mixture of brand, data, and strategy, in the spirit of the Content Value Model, and that requires a close, frequent look at what’s working and what’s not in direct connection with the association’s brand goals.

“Obviously a paywall only makes sense if you have truly unique content that your audience is willing to pay for. Otherwise you will have a drop in traffic,” notes Milana Sobol, Manifest’s senior vice president for digital innovation. Every organization has a different approach to what tactics might work the best, she points out, but no decision-making process is black and white, and data and research should inform how a paywall is implemented.

“I would also want to understand what are their user journeys and what are their needs and how is this content valuable to them,” Sobol says.

But don’t forget casual users in the process. You need to analyze your content strategy with both members and nonmembers in mind.

Consider your paywall’s design.

Often, The New York Times is held up as the premier example of an organization that successfully transitioned to a paywall world. Its use of a “leaky” metered paywall, which tracks the number of articles read, lets it maintain its reputation as a newspaper of record, both drawing in the occasional reader and engaging its biggest fans to the point that they’re willing to pay.

The Times even managed to make improvements over time, like enhancing its use of back-end resources and blocking users reading in “incognito mode,” without rocking the boat with its more fervent readers. An American Marketing Association study found that it also helped the paper’s bottom line—leading to not only a 16.8 percent increase in overall digital visitors but also a 1 to 4 percent increase in print subscriptions.

This approach could work for associations that want to make more strategic use of content currently behind a paywall , using it to attract new target audiences.

Don’t scare off an audience.

One thing associations should perhaps lean away from is the hard paywall; the “you’re in or you’re out” approach could create a negative experience that turns more people away than it attracts. New visitors won’t become members if you force them away. Find ways to give them a bit of a taste.

“If you’re a less-known brand or your intention is to hit maximum eyeballs—meaning you can attract advertising to set off the lower subscription fees—metered is best,” Sobol says.

One strategy to ease things for potential members is to ask for a little less, at least at first. In the past year or so, registration walls have generated significant interest among publishers. The American Association for the Advancement of Science even mixes a registration wall with a metered paywall for the free version of its Science website.

And, of course, you have to read the room. When a staggering event like the novel coronavirus hits and you have content relevant to a large audience, it might be worth taking down the paywall for a while, or moving content in front of it, in the name of public interest. Recently, a number of major academic publishers did just that.

A paywall can start a conversation with a new potential member, or end that conversation before it’s had a chance to flourish. Are you inviting people in or scaring them away?

Don’t let competitors sneak in.

Is your paywalled content uniquely valuable to your audience (such as in-depth research about your sector or reporting in a very specific niche)? Or can it be easily re-created, like a generalist blog post?

If it’s the latter, a vendor or startup in your space could come along and usurp your advantages by offering similar content for free—and with it, taking revenue opportunities that could be yours.

Don’t let them. If there’s no strategic advantage to putting a piece of content behind a paywall, keep it available to the public. And be sure to price your paywall items relative to other organizations in your vertical.

Set a Strategy, But Be Willing to Bend

Managing paywalls is complicated to get right, and news outlets have spent the past quarter-century fine-tuning their approach. Historically, associations have found success with member paywalls. But as the news industry has improved its tactics, it’s hard not to look from afar and think some news sites might be doing things brilliantly that you haven’t even considered.

Now more than ever, it might be a good time to loosen things up.

Eric Goodstadt, president of Manifest, has more than two decades of experience in the agency world, serving clients in diverse sectors—including associations and nonprofits, and Fortune 500 companies.

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