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Newsletter Walls: How a French publisher is innovating to increase its subscriber base

Digital publishers today face numerous challenges in finding new, innovative ways to build a sustainable business model. For some, this involves alternative engagement and conversion strategies that step out of the traditional box of simply blocking content with a paywall.

One example is Alternatives Economiques, the French print and digital news publisher who have developed a unique engagement strategy involving newsletter inscriptions and registration walls to boost ARPU and de-anonymize audiences.

Newsletter Wall as a soft conversion step

Despite a hard paywall strategy proving successful for premium publishers such as The Wall Street Journal, Economist and Financial Times, it’s not optimal for every business model because, typically, users require more time to engage and interact with content before deciding to subscribe or not.

Alternatives Economiques approach is to first present users with a Newsletter Wall, blocking content and asking them to sign up to the weekly newsletter in exchange for access to one article for free.

Instead of employing a hard wall strategy that blocks non-subscribers, this soft conversion step allows for content discovery, increased engagement and the development of strong, lasting relationships that, combined, all support AE’s subscription conversion rates.

The Alternatives Economiques team have been able to A/B test their Newsletter Wall on the Poool Dashboard, the solution employed for all their audience conversion strategies, giving them insights into what is the most effective strategy for their specialist audience. Through these tests, they found:

  • The wording on their call-to-action button impacted click-through rates on the wall, with ‘finish reading’ proving more successful than ‘continue reading’. Fréderic Desiles, Head of Strategy and Marketing at Alternatives Economiques, puts this down to the terminality of this phrase, emphasising to users that passing through this will give them access to the whole content.
  • Simple designs were most effective, with minimal text, large spacing between aspects of the wall and a button colour that matches the brand.
  • Unsurprisingly, forefronting the ‘free’ aspect of newsletter inscription was a big factor in persuading users to convert, moving it from the subtitle on the wall to the heading. Poool’s consultancy team believe this is down to a user’s experience of paywalls which typically require subscription payment to pass through. However, as AE’s tests proved, simple wording can change this perception and support conversions in other forms, including newsletter inscription.

Thanks in large part to this Newsletter Wall, Alternatives Economiques has gone from 200k newsletter registrants in late 2020 to 360k today, forming habits in their users’ lives to increase engagement and, ultimately, encourage subscription in the future.

“Not only have we significantly increased our newsletter base, but we’ve gained precious insights into where users see value on our site. With hundreds of article-unlocks each day via the newsletter wall, we now understand the types of content that interest our audience, informing our freemium strategy to benefit the more ‘hard’ conversion steps such as registration and subscription.” — Fréderic Desiles, Head of Strategy and Marketing at Alternatives Economiques

The limitations of this strategy

However, as with many things, Newsletter Walls have their limitations.

Firstly, it’s impossible to track users who have already passed through the wall on a previous visit, meaning users may be presented with the wall even if they already receive the newsletter.

Second, Desiles notes that there’s a large time gap between a user passing through the Newsletter Wall and the point at which they decide to subscribe (if at all).

So, although this strategy has been hugely successful in building the foundations of AE’s engagement and premium strategy, the publisher has subsequently decided to take a step further by integrating a Registration Wall into their soft conversion journey.

The goal here is to convert anonymous visitors into free account holders, allowing the publisher to collect custom reader IDs and first-party data to understand their audience, providing personalised journeys that gradually increase engagement, and lead the user to subscribing at some point in the future.

Registration supports both advertising and subscription revenue models through increasing engagement — i.e. frequency, recency and volume of visits. Additional ad-revenue through targeting, higher page views and more ad inventory, whilst simultaneously increasing a user’s propensity to click-through the paywall and subscribe in the future. Registration therefore directly impacts revenues — in fact, Poool’s research has found that registered members have an ARPU up to 10 times greater than anonymous visitors.” — Stéphane Père, CRO at Poool with over 15 years experience working with digital publishers, including The Economist

The next step in the funnel

On the Alternatives Economiques website, after having unlocked an article by signing up to the newsletter, users are blocked again on the following content by a paywall.

This has been a successful strategy for the publisher in encouraging subscriptions, but the team wanted to work on improving ‘impulsive’ conversions — ones where a user is both frustrated and engaged enough that they decide to subscribe in the minute that they’re presented with the wall so that they can access content.

To achieve this goal, the team has innovatively decided to integrate payment into the wall itself. Thanks to Poool’s integration with Stripe and code-free design features, the AE paywall collects all payment details before the user has even clicked-through, not only simplifying the process, but also reducing a step in the conversion funnel and collecting this all-important information early on.

“We had an intuition that the number of impulsive subscriptions could be improved, so we acted on it by developing this wall that allows for conversion in a single click. Since putting this strategy in place, our paywall conversion rates have increase by an impressive 40%” — Fréderic

Innovation and soft conversion

Overall, although Newsletter Walls have their limitations, they’ve built the foundations for a registration strategy on the Alternatives Economiques website, which comes with a whole host of benefits for the publisher.

This is also a clear example of innovation paying off — integrating payment into the paywall is rarely used as a technique to increase conversion rates, but it’s proved hugely advantageous for this publisher and highlights the potential gains in trying something different.

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