5 Common Mistakes in Building a Paywall, Explained by Example

I’m a big believer in paid online content. With the major shifts of increasing Adblock usage and declining online ad revenue, I think direct payments is the best option for publishers to not only stay profitable, but also produce better content overall. That being said, it’s not nearly as easy to get a paying user as one who views ads. The upside is that a paying user can generate at least 5–10X more revenue than an ad-monetized user (Facebook makes an average $16/year/user; imagine if instead they charged $5 or $10/month).

The trend toward direct payments is already in motion, as you’ve probably noticed with more and more sites putting up a paywall. For publishers to move away from ads and toward direct payments, the main consideration is the content strategy, which we’ve talked about in a previous post. The next key part is the user experience. And unfortunately, the UX of many paywalls I’ve seen online are likely driving away readers who are willing to pay. In this post, I’ll outline some of the major UX mistakes I see in digital paywalls. I’ll explain each point by giving live examples.

  1. Too many subscription options.

Example: The Australian

The Australian Paywall

First of all, way too much information to process. There are 3 choices in the content you get, and each of these has 2 payment plans (which aren’t easy to understand), giving 6 total options. Reading through the plans just takes too much time for me to make a decision. I’ll probably forget what I was reading on their website and move on.

Too many choices is the most common problem I’ve found when hitting digital paywalls. The Australian is just one particularly bad example, with all it’s distracting text and pricing options. LATimes also gives excessive options, some having multiple prices:

LATimes Paywall

Solution: The Boston Globe

Boston Globe Paywall

It’s simple — one option, one price, one button. Now my only choice is whether to continue or not. If I really want the content, continuing has little friction. While I still don’t like the pricing scheme of $0.99 to start and then a higher price later, it’s nice to see only one number.

2. No content preview.

Example: Financial Times

Visit the homepage of Financial Times, and you’ll see dozens of the latest articles to read. Here’s just a preview above the fold, but below it, there’s at least another 40–50 articles to grab your interest.

Financial Times Homepage

The problem — when you click on any of the article links, you immediately get the sign up page (which also has too many options):

Financial Times Paywall

With only the titles, but no idea of the content itself, most users will bounce away vs. make a payment. A better option for FT would be a metered paywall, where you can see a few articles for free each month. Another strategy is to let users read part of the article they click, then ask to subscribe. That way users get a sense of what FT has to offer before suddenly being asked to pay.

Solution: again, The Boston Globe

The Boston Globe Paywall

The Boston Globe uses the 2 important preview features I mentioned above: (1) metered access and (2) content teaser. Another useful feature is the footer bar which indicates how many free articles I have left and directs me to the subscription page. So not only am I more engaged with the Globe’s content and know what I’ll be paying for, but I can easily sign up at any time.

3. Visitors are redirected during registration.

Example: Entertainment Weekly

Here’s the homepage of EW.com. Like any website, it has it’s unique style and branding:

Entertainment Weekly Homepage

Now let’s look at the subscriber page. Click on the digital subscriptions option, and you’re on a completely different page. Although it is a subdomain of EW.com, the look and feel of the original site are gone:

Entertainment Weekly Subscription

This redirect damages the brand and makes users lose trust in the payment they’re about to make (or not make). Users may be unsure if they’re on the right website anymore, they may worry about joining a suspicious third-party subscriber service or payment provider. Who knows where they’ll be redirected after making the payment. Matching the design of the main website and subscription page is crucial for a good user experience. An even better UX is to let users sign up directly on the page they’re viewing.

Solution: Stratechery

Stratechery Paywall

In terms of UX, Ben Thompson does a great job selling premium content on Stratechery. When I reach a paywalled article, I see a snippet of the content (could be a bit longer) and at the same time I see the subscription options. He makes it simple — one subscription plan with either a monthly or annual payment. When I click one of the options, paying is easy:

Stratechery Payment

Again, I’m staying on the same page with the content that I want to read. So I won’t forget why I’m subscribing, and once I’m done, I’ll immediately go back to reading. To pay, I don’t have to go through multiple steps/redirects. Even better, I don’t have to enter my full name, address, phone number, etc. This brings me to the next point.

4. Registration takes too much time.

Example: Denver Post

Denver Post Paywall

While too wordy, the subscription options are not that bad. At least I only see a choice in plans, not complicated by multiple pricing structures. However, once I’ve made a choice:

Denver Post Signup

I have 5 major steps to go through, and each of them will ask for a lot of my information. The step that stands out the most, and what I see in many signups, is my address. I selected a digital plan, so do you really need my physical address? Better to leave it out and make it easier for me to start paying you.

Solution: as shown above, Stratechery. One click to choose my subscription, little personal info required, one click to start paying.

5. Unsubscribing is a pain.

Example: Wall Street Journal and New York Times

The WSJ and NYT subscriptions are notorious for being difficult to cancel. First of all, it’s not obvious how to do so. I had to dig into the cancellation policy of each. Here’s what you have to do:

WSJ Cancellation
NYT Cancellation

This goes without saying — no one wants to call customer service.

People have a hard time committing to any type of subscription — so they want to know that they can cancel at any time without hassle. By assuring users that there’s no problem with unsubscribing, they’ll have more trust in your brand and feel less hesitation to sign up. Users don’t want to Google “how to unsubscribe from X” and and be met with horror stories from users who failed to do so. Unsubscribing should be so simple that a user can figure it out from their subscriber profile without special instructions.

Solution: Netflix

Compare the instructions from WSJ and NYT to this:

Netflix Cancellation

Netflix is smart enough to build the unsubscribe option directly in the customer’s dashboard. It makes sense to omit it — why would you want your subscribers to even think about unsubscribing? However, letting users know that there’s no long-term commitment and they’ll be able to subscribe and unsubscribe as they please will encourage people to sign up in the first place. Besides the benefits to the user, it’s way easier for Netflix! They don’t need a customer service team dedicated to disabling subscriptions.

If you’re a publisher or content creator thinking about adding a paywall on your website, the main takeaway from this article is to make subscribing to your content as seamless as possible. Although the most important thing is to produce content that people are willing to pay for, right behind that is a great user experience. The 5 points outlined here are the most common UX problems I encounter, and they occur on some of the most popular websites. By optimizing the subscription process, we’ve seen you can increase signups by at least 5X and payments by 2–3X.

In case you’re building a paywall and looking for the UX features described here, feel free to start with our open-source code for a paywall/premium membership.