Paywalls for online publications aren’t necessarily a bad idea, but they are high-risk
Following the example of other leading Spanish newspapers, El País has decided to re-introduce the paywall model it abandoned 15 years ago.
As I told Lucinda Southern of Digiday for an article she published today entitled “In Spain, publishers warily pivot to subscriptions”, paywalls are not an option available to all publications and will only work if readers see sufficient value for themselves or society in paying. Medium is a clear example of that: most of its paying customers do so because they like to have a space like this, with powerful algorithms that select nice stories to read, with high quality content and, the most important factor of them all, free of advertising.
From a technological aspect, most paywalls can be easily gotten round with a bit of determination. If a publication places a restriction on the number of items that can be read for free, people will simply use incognito mode and/or delete the cookies that allow the publisher to account for how many stories have they read.
The danger for publications that are airtight is that they end up being largely ignored because they generate so little traffic via search engines, meaning a decrease in the metrics advertisers want to see in order to decide how much they pay for advertising.
If a medium enjoys sufficient prestige or can access a large number of institutional subscriptions, which are fundamentally the assets that El País intends to play in this movement, then a paywall can work. When El País announces its subscription model, a certain number of companies and institutions will decide to pay. There will also be a certain number of individuals who value the medium enough to pay. There will also be many people who, although they value the paper, do not wish to pay, and who will opt for the many ways to continue reading it for free. Some readers will end up, after a while, finding that they access the medium on a regular basis and that it’s worth paying for a subscription instead of the hassle of using the methods outlined above, but that process takes time.
I should point out that Spaniards are as inclined to pay for subscriptions as anybody else. The growth of Netflix in Spain shows that subscription and pay-per-content offers work exactly the same way and with the same broadcasting models as in other countries. But while Netflix offers unique, exclusive and highly valued content in the context of a fantastic user experience, most newspapers, with a few exceptions, offer content that many readers perceive as a commodity, as something they can get from many other sites. Many news stories, in fact, come from agencies and have relatively little added value.
In addition, there is the issue of user experience: when we pay, we want a pleasant experience. However, the vast majority of Spanish online media, including El País, crowd their pages with advertising banners that sometimes take up more screen space than the story itself, along with all kinds of other intrusive formats, backed up by batteries of tracking cookies that sell users’ profiles. We have come to accept this, albeit grudgingly, but we’re not going to put up with it when we’re paying. El País doesn’t seem to be saying that its subscription model will be advertisement-free, in which case, I don’t predict a great future for its model.
Nor does the paper seem to be making any special offers for subscribers such as privileged access to content, additional sources, etc. — or sweepstakes, special offers, etc., although it may be too early yet. Again: the key to a successful paywall model is to make subscribers feel special, privileged, part of a club that fights for their loyalty, an approach that very few newspapers in Spain have been able to develop.
Other Spanish newspapers have tried over the last 20 years to implement payment walls. El País tried in 2002 and then dropped it 2005 after losing readers. This time, things are different: Google is complicit and people are more used to paying for content; but let’s not forget a fundamental axiom: there is a limit to the number of subscriptions people are prepared to pay for, and the market is already crowded.
I wish media trying to explore the subscription model every success. But if they think they’re going to have it easy or that it’s just a matter of installing the technology they clearly haven’t thought this through.
(En español, aquí)