Turning the paywall upside down

Stories that are behind paywalls are often the ones most likely to drive reader engagement. How do media houses introduce these stories to readers who are not yet paying, but could be?

At the Mic Editors Lab in New York, organised with support from Parse.ly, a team from National Geographic sought to find the answer.

While most traditional newsrooms, including The New York Times, have a ‘countdown’ system for a paywall — where a counter lets you read a certain number of articles for free in a fixed time frame, before cutting you off — Team National Geographic suggested going the other way with their prototype, called Counting Up.

The team — Scott Burkhard, Michael Greshko and CY Park — believe that the high cost associated with enterprise journalism does warrant ‘premium content’, but a paywall risks turning away readers just as they are displaying loyalty to your publication. They propose introducing a widget that progressively rewards users with more access based on their engagement pattern.

Scott Burkhard, C.Y. Park and Michael Greshko from National Geographic

“We give users a log in, and then a widget that’s liked to their account keeps track of how and what they are consuming,” says Burkhard, a UX designer at National Geographic. “Users are given goals — if they read a certain number of articles in a defined time-frame, they will be rewarded with access to more premium content.”

Their target audience is a subset of readers who read multiple articles a month, but do not log in or socially engage with stories. These are semi-engaged readers who would typically be repulsed by a paywall, but could be persuaded to engage more.

So instead of hitting a paywall, the user is prompted to enter their email address or log in via Facebook. A Django-powered widget linked to the account follows them around, tracking the stories they finished reading, videos they watched and social engagement, if any. This data is updated into the publisher’s CMS in real time.

The publisher pre-sets milestones for the reader, which unlock a segment of premium access for a limited amount of time. Throughout this journey, the reader is reminded that if they take a paid subscription, they can have immediate, unlimited access.

According to the team, the publisher could also reward users for contributing to their journalism with innovative modes of engagement, such as sending in a story idea, or writing a meaningful comment.

They add that with Counting Up, media outlets can elevate their reader engagement and overall reach beyond what paywalls can do. Additionally, getting a user to log in will give the marketing and sales divisions richer insight into reader behaviour, improving sales opportunity. With all of this considered, the initial costs could be offset with increased ad revenue.

“Monetising online content is an obstacle,” says Park, a designer and developer at National Geographic. “How do you pay the whole chain of producers, writers, researchers and so on, just on page views? We need to create an environment for engagement instead.”

Currently, National Geographic has a paywall for one tier of content. “After we came back from New York, we pitched the prototype to the entire digital team at National Geographic, including high-level executives,” says Burkhard. “There was a lot of excitement around our ideas; however, we haven’t heard any updates about incorporating our hack into the membership model yet. These are large-scale business decisions that need various levels of consideration, and we will keep GEN posted with updates.”

Watch this space.