How to build a paywall

By Felix Salmon
July 14, 2010
this is a very sensible way to do it:

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If you’re going to put a paywall on your website, this is a very sensible way to do it:

Press+ is aware that there are ways users can avoid paying for the content its affiliates are about to charge for, including by using this Firefox extension (as well as by using multiple browsers), if they are willing to spend the time and effort and endure the related inconvenience.

As we develop the system in the coming months we will implement our plans to address this problem to the degree it is material for any publisher. But we’ll do so from the prospective that we are talking about content that has been free for years; thus the fact that a small percentage of people may try to circumvent a modest charge for it and succeed in doing so for a short period of time must be seen in light of the fact that most won’t, which means that a new revenue stream from loyal readers will have been created.

David Brauer seems to be of the opinion that any new paywall should be “robust” and shouldn’t be able to be defeated by means of a plugin (or by using multiple browsers, or by deleting cookies, or various other methods, I suppose). But that’s exactly wrong. The purpose of a paywall isn’t to keep people out, it’s to generate revenue from loyal readers. And the expense of making the paywall harder to circumvent is almost certainly greater than the marginal extra revenue that such an action would generate: after all, the kind of people trying to get around the paywall will most likely simply go elsewhere, rather than pay.

Back in the old days of print newspapers, you could read them for free by going to your local library or your nearest hotel lobby. You want a free copy of the FT? Just pop in to the FT building at 1330 Sixth Avenue — there’s always a pile there. A paywall is like the cover price on a newspaper: it’s the amount that you’re asking and expecting your readers to pay, but it’s not a sum without which reading the paper is impossible.

LancasterOnline is asking its readers to pay it $1.99 a month if they read a lot of obituaries. That’s a reasonable request and if I was a regular reader of that site’s obituaries, I would pay the fee. To sneak around the paywall is to place oneself in an antagonistic relationship with the paper you’re reading: it might be legal, but it’s certainly impolite. It’s a bit like stealing fruit from a roadside farmstand operating on the honor system. And I can’t imagine that’s the kind of thing that LancasterOnline’s loyal obituary readers would do.

Meanwhile, high paywalls impose other costs. When I’m reading Twitter on my phone and follow a link to the WSJ or FT, I hate running into their paywall. And the FT, in particular, has a paywall which breaks in unexpected and annoying ways, barring you from reading stories even when you’re a logged in subscriber. Recently a very generous multimillionaire, a huge admirer of the FT and a loyal subscriber of many years, told me that he hates the FT paywall — partly because he runs into it sometimes and partly because it makes it harder for him to share FT stories he likes. It’s pretty obviously not good business for the FT to alienate its customers like that and I suspect that part of the reason that the NYT is taking so long building its paywall is to try to avoid those problems as much as possible.

Circumventability, then, is a sign of a sensible paywall, not a sign of a badly-designed one. People will get around any paywall if they really want — just pasting the headline into Google News will often work fine. Newspapers shouldn’t worry about the people who do that; instead, they should be flattered. And spend their efforts instead on improving their relationships with their paying customers.

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