Why paywalls don’t work, and why you should use them.

It's no secret that the publishing industry has had a tough time getting people to pay for content. Paywalls are often the method outlets turn to only to be disappointed by the results. Our lead designer has some thoughts on why.

On the Monday before the start of the 2019/20 Premier League season, my Twitter feed was drowned in the tidal wave splash of the launch The Athletic in the UK.

They are a startup out of the US,operating for a couple of years covering all the US sports. That, in itself, is not unusual – but their approach kind of is.

Their focus is on quality; Longform articles, in-depth analysis, and original reporting. Not clickbait headlines, not spurious transfer gossip, not deliberately trying to upset fans to generate outrage traffic. There are no adverts on the site – it is 100% subscription-driven, hidden behind a paywall.

The Athletic UK logo

The reason launch day was so busy on Twitter is because The Atlantic’s approach is to hire all the respected writing talent they can. According to the Press Gazette they have hired and poached at least 57 of the most respected journalists and content producers that cover football – with more to come.

For example, as a Liverpool fan, I can vouch for the fact that in James Pearce and Simon Hughes they have hired two of the best journalists that cover the club. James was the lead Liverpool journalist for the local Liverpool Echo – often known as Bad News Pearce as his closeness to the club allowed him to continually squash rumours of exotic transfers. Simon is just a talented writer working for the Independent and also authoring many books about the Reds.

I can only assume the writers covering the other clubs are just as good. There are plenty of ‘neutral’ journalists too – the likes of Michael Cox, aka Zonal Marking, who is a massively respected tactical analyst from the world of Twitter.

From what I can tell the writers are given a lot of freedom to then go and write the kind of stories they could only dream of writing for more traditional media outlets. Long-form pieces that really detail the hidden parts of clubs, how they are run, interviews with owners – real catnip stuff to a lot of fans.

It’s right up my street. It ticks everything I would like a website to be. It is well designed, it’s backed up by a good app, it’s completely ad-free, it features great writers producing engaging, interesting content that I am genuinely interested in. I actively want to support content producers and quality journalism with actual money as I feel it’s the right thing to do. They have a great attitude and a really persuasive pitch to justify the cost. I love what they are doing, basically.

Yet I haven’t even signed up to the free trial.

I have come really close but something is stopping me from pulling the trigger – even with their ever-present advertising haunting every nook and cranny of my social media existence. I might yet crumble … but I’m not sure what the tipping point will be

Subscription fatigue

One reason is the fact that signing up is another subscription. Everything seems to be a subscription these days. I have genuinely lost track of what I pay for in little monthly drips.

Netflix, Spotify, Amazon Prime. That thing for the Nintendo Switch. Oh, the extra couple of pounds to Apple for the extra cloud space. My password manager. Of course, the Anfield Wrap … they’ve just put their prices up, but I don’t care. That web server that I don’t really use, does that count? There’s the money I regularly put into a bottle shop club to feed my craft beer addiction, I should probably count that. I think that’s it … Oh, wait … no – for some reason I now seem to pay for my printer ink every month.

And that doesn’t include the bigger ticket, more traditional subscriptions – mobile phones, TV packages, broadband etc etc.

I’m aware that quite a lot of money leaves my account without me giving it a single thought. It just disappears without me having to lift a finger. Every year that list grows and there’s a vague sense of that being completely unsustainable.

There is a level of commitment to a subscription that you don’t get with a one off transaction. A one night stand compared to a relationship, I suppose you could say. You have to be wary that there’s only room in peoples lives for so many relationships where they are willing to invest heavily.

I mentioned the Anfield Wrap. They are a media outlet that started out as a fan podcast. They have been producing top quality, warm, engaging, real content around Liverpool Football Club and the city of Liverpool since 2011. I have been with them since their pilot episode. They have steadily grown in scope and execution, becoming a full-time professional setup. When they started charging a subscription I basically threw my money at them, when they upped their price I didn’t bat an eyelid.

That’s not the sort of relationship a new outlet like The Atheltic can get simply by existing. No matter how much they flutter their eyelashes in my direction. It’s a real problem for publishers and the world of journalism as a whole.

Content Fatigue

Getting people to pay for content is really tough. Even if you seemingly do everything right, it might not be enough.

Quality content is just the bare minimum these days. Quality content is everywhere. You can barely move for quality content.

In Spotify I have access to most of the music humankind has ever produced – at the touch of a button. Netflix created 1500 hours of quality content in 2018 alone. Not hosted – created.

I have trouble keeping up with the 5 or 6 podcasts I’m currently subscribed to never mind the thousands and thousands that I don’t, but probably should.

I’m still old school, I still have an RSS feed reader where I’m subscribed to over 100 active outlets that I try to skim through every day.

YouTube … I was sceptical at first but there is an unfathomably huge pit of excellent content to take away your time – one of my current favourites is a series where a guy is attempting to walk in a dead straight line across Wales. It’s literally a guy with a GoPro strapped to his head, swearing his way across hedgerows and the occasional reservoir … it’s brilliant, I promise.

I haven’t even got to traditional TV. Or the Radio. Or actually watching sport, rather than reading about it. Or gaming. Books! I forgot about books! I have a family too. And a full-time job.

There is a war for peoples attention. There’s a lot of quality stuff that will grab peoples attention before they even have time to acknowledge something new – never mind pay for it.

So subscriptions are worthless?

Absolutely not.

There isn’t another solution currently available that offers the freedom – journalistically and financially – that a paywall driven subscription offers. It’s a problem that has already been solved technologically and we have a product of our own to facilitate paywalls and taking payments.

It’s just that adding a paywall to your site won’t necessarily mean cash will automatically start rolling in. They do work, you just have to know the best way to implement them.

There are also different strategies as to how you implement a subscription model. You can go full, hard paywall like Athletic. You can phase a paywall by offering some content for free then enforcing a wall like some of our clients. You can ask for support without a paywall, a model that is increasingly common with podcasts and video creators — using sites like Patreon to ask dedicated fans to support your content creation, perhaps offering some perks in return, like early access to products etc. The Guardian’s approach is something similar.

A tighter focus of content often helps. Covering all of the world of sport is a big ask. Even covering just football. The Athletic have taken on 57 journalists and still can’t cover all of football.

For a lot of publishers, especially smaller publishers, the best way to success is to narrow in on niches that are overlooked. Servicing passionate audiences that are underrepresented. Harnessing the power of a community, engendering a sense of belonging and common purpose – they are all powerful tools to get people to be engaged enough to want to support your work.

Like with all things there is no silver bullet, but with the right tools, the right implementation, and a realistic mindset, subscription model paywalls can absolutely be the right direction to take. Just be aware that even with all the best content in the world, the most creative journalists and a massive marketing budget, you might not be able to persuade even your target audience into entering a relationship with you.

Anthony Casey

Anthony Casey

Lover of tea, good beer (#alelog), typography, football, and clean layouts. Anthony joined us at the beginning of 2013 and has the job of making the company’s design stand out around the world. As Senior Designer, he has been instrumental in the evolution of The Spectator’s online design language, the re-design of Apollo Magazine, WORKTECH Academy, and many other projects.

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