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Finding the balance between frustration & engagement in your subscription strategy

When it comes to converting your audience into members or subscribers, it’s essential to find the perfect balance between frustration and engagement. But, like many things, it’s easier said than done….

Too much frustration and a user leaves your site to find content elsewhere.

Leave too much content open and you may well increase engagement but this won’t increase your revenues.

And, to complicate matters further, this ‘perfect balance’ is different for every publisher depending on the audience, content and strategy.

So where to start in finding your perfect balance?

Let’s dissect the issue.

What makes up engagement?

Although engagement is measured differently amongst publishers, the arguably most recognised definition of engagement is the combination of Recency, Frequency and Volume, together making the RFV score.

Recency — The number of days since a user last visited your site

Frequency — This could be about how often the user visits your site or how often they actually consume content.

Volume — The quantity of content consumed and interactions made with your site. I.e. Are their visits of a high quality?

To increase these metrics, you can consider employing engagement strategies to counterbalance any frustration felt by your user when faced with the paywall. These differ depending on your strategy, content and audience but could include:

  • Access to content, simply leaving content open to non-subscribed users (e.g. a freemium or metered approach)
  • High quality content, including opening access to premium content to allow users to discover the value of your subscription offers (e.g. discovery passes or free trials)
  • Interactive content, including comment sections, the ability to debate, quizzes, etc.
  • Personalization, maybe an account space, UX features that allow the user to follow topics or an adapted home page, just like Netflix
  • Soft conversion steps, including newsletter inscription (a great habit-forming tool) or registration (collect first-party data to target marketing campaigns)

What makes up frustration?

Quite simply, frustration is created when a user can’t achieve something they set out to do, or is interrupted in their journey to do it.

For instance:

  • Interruptions, such as ads and pop-ups
  • Content blocks, whether that be simply a paywall or the fact that the paywall is too high up on a content
  • Too many clicks/scrolls required to achieve something
  • Having to fill out too many form fields
  • Bad copy on the wall or within the conversion process that doesn’t clearly convey the value of subscribing

As expected, these counterbalance any engagement that you may have developed from the user and can dissuade them from returning frequently to consume your content.

However, without these little frustration points, your user may quite happily continue to consume content for free and never see the need to convert (thus limit your ARPU).

We can therefore conclude that the pressure created by a paywall and premium content has an impact on both the frustration held by readers AND on conversion rates.

Clearly, both engagement and frustration are essential to successful conversion strategies!

What makes the perfect balance?

Aside from seeking to increase user engagement, there are 4 key things to consider and test when finding the ideal balance between frustration and engagement.

  1. Premium content visibility

In a Poool study, analysing 75 digital publisher’s premium content strategies, we discovered a correlation between traffic on paid content and the reader-to-subscriber conversion rate, but only up to 40% paid content visibility.

This implies that increasing traffic share on paid content, via increased premium content visibility, will positively influence conversion rates. To achieve this, you don’t necessarily need to produce a greater number of premium articles but increase their visibility on your website homepage, within your newsletter, on social media, etc.

As the limit of this correlation rests at 40%, we’d recommend aiming for between 10–40% visibility, carrying out tests to find the optimal paid content visibility for your strategy and audience.

Bio à la Une, for instance, has been working on premium content visibility and the team now aims for a minimum of 10%, increasing this percentage over the weekend when they have the greatest number of audiences. For them, it’s not simply about conversion rates, but about educating their audience on the fact that highly-researched, quality content doesn’t come without a cost.

The yellow banners signal premium content to reduce frustration when a user is blocked.

2. Paywall visibility

Differently to above, this refers to the visibility of your paywall on premium content. After analysing Poool clients, we found a benchmark of 30–60% paywall visibility, but we equally see successful publishers at extreme ends of this scale.

These 3 successful digital publishers, for instance, all have close to 100% wall visibility rate, achieved in different ways. Whilst Financial Times presents a full page paywall, showing only the article title, The Washington Post employs a pop-up hard paywall and The New York Times blocks the full article with an anti-scroll paywall.

Although these paywalls likely lead to higher CTR rates, the design doesn’t encourage recirculation and could increase the rate of departure from the publisher’s site due to user frustration.

As normal, it’s therefore important to test different wall visibilities to find the optimal percentage for your strategy.

3. Soft conversion strategies

Instead of jumping directly to a hard paywall, how about leading your user across stepping stones, gradually increasing engagement and propensity to subscribe?

These are called soft conversion steps and can be hugely beneficial for balancing frustration and engagement.

For instance, Newsletter Walls require newsletter inscription to access content, increasing engagement through habit-forming content being sent via email on a regular basis.

Registration Walls, another valuable conversion step, ask a user to create a free account in order to unlock content. Again, this increases engagement and collects valuable data points for personalising a user’s experience, targeting ads for higher ARPU and informing your strategy to later present the paywall at the right time, in the right way.

Discover the best Registration Wall examples of 2022 in our benchmarking article.

Even a metered paywall strategy could be considered as a soft approach, where users are offered a quota of content for free before being blocked, giving them the chance to discover the value in subscribing.

4. Dynamic wall strategy

Perhaps the most effective strategy to employ is one that is adapted to a user’s level of engagement, afterall, how can you perfectly balance frustration and engagement when no two users are the same?

At Poool, we segment audiences into 4 engagement groups, Volatiles, Occasionals, Regulars and Fans, providing clients with the tools to build adapted journeys for each segment.

For instance, Volatile users, who only visit your site once or twice a month, will be highly frustrated by a hard paywall and likely leave to find content elsewhere. However, by presenting them with a Newsletter or Registration Wall, or allowing them to discover premium content for free, you’ll gradually increase their engagement and, subsequently, their propensity to convert into a subscriber when faced with the Paywall.

Fans, on the other hand, are already highly engaged and can perhaps first be converted into a registered member, so as to inform your strategy, and then presented with a personalised, hard paywall to increase frustration enough to encourage conversion.

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