Tips and strategies to nudge readers through the paywall 

The digital publishing landscape has changed dramatically in the last few years, and to an extent, it’s still finding its way.

With revenue from advertising on a steady decline (despite many publishers boasting record volumes of traffic to their properties), some of the most celebrated publications in the world, from internationally renowned broadsheets to niche content creators, are introducing paywalls.

And while it may have seemed crazy to think that readers would pay for content online when so much of it is available for free elsewhere, we’re seeing publishers prove that subscription models are a viable and hugely profitable avenue.

The success of your subscription service hinges on the quality and popularity of your content, yes, but the way in which you nurture and nudge readers through the paywall is just as crucial.

Whilst you may be one of those brands that have a loyal readership of fans happy to pay with little or no encouragement, chances are that you need to be a little smarter around how you engage and convert potential subscribers.

To do this successfully, and consistently, month on month you need to have an understanding of your readers’ behaviour at an individual level and the capacity to engage with them in real-time.

So here are some of our top tips for encouraging readers to subscribe, whether your operating model is a hard paywall, a metered paywall, or even donation-based.

Sidenote: If you’re looking for tips on how to actually retain subscribers, then we have you covered right here.

Create audience segments

We’ll start with this one because it is far and away from the most useful thing you can do, and underpins many of the other tactics and strategies we’ll look at.

There are essentially two broad types of categories that we recommend you divide your non-paying audiences into, based on a) their activity levels and b) their interests.

In other words, how often do they visit your publications and what do they read or watch when they get there?

And of course, you can have multiple sub-categories within this as well (“occasional politics readers”, “loyal entertainment readers” etc).

This depth of understanding is what’s going to let you personalise campaigns and tailor your messaging when it comes time to ask them to subscribe. And let’s face it, you may need to ask them a few times.

Define your likely subscriber’s profile

This isn’t a tactic so much as a fundamental question to be answered in order to create better nurture funnels.

What does a likely subscriber look like, in terms of their engagement and activity levels. The more data you have on your readers the clearer this answer will be.

You can even get down to the level of “are our politics readers more likely to subscribe than those who just read the back pages”? 

In terms of our own work with publishers, we see that one of the most valuable pieces of data you have is visibility on how many devices a reader is engaging with you on.  Readers who access your content on desktop and mobile devices are typically red-hot candidates to subscribe.

Readers who live in the country where the publication is based, or even the actual city, are also typically more likely to subscribe, so location data can also be very useful to gather.

Putting all of this data together, you end up with an ideal profile that looks something like:

  • Visits website or app at least 5 times per week
  • Has created an account
  • Uses multiple devices
  • Reads at least three different sections (e.g. “arts, business and politics”)

This gives you a blueprint or a checklist to aim at throughout the nurturing process. How are we encouraging readers to use our app as well as the website, are we doing enough to get readers to create an account, are we cross-promoting other content, what’s our strategy to drive readers back on-site multiple times a week and so on?

Communicate your value

What makes you different? Why would a reader pay to read your content online instead of finding a free blog or, even worse, a competitor?

Of course, the answer to this question is unique to each publisher, but it’s definitely something that needs to be communicated to your audience if you want them to pay.

If you have particular advantages over rivals like a celebrity or highly-regarded columnist, a weekly podcast, or anything that you know is popular, then be sure to highlight this, if it’s relevant to the individual reader.

For example, let’s say you have an ex-professional footballer writing a regular opinion piece. Now, for readers who are only interested in current affairs this isn’t going to convert them (and in fact, mentioning it could even have the opposite effect).

But for die-hard football fans, it could be exactly what they’re looking for.

Engaging a potential subscriber with personalised content

In the example above, the notification is targeting only the segment of non-subscribers that we know are interested in football content (based on the pages they typically visit). You could have similar, personalised campaigns running for all of the content categories that you are creating content for.

Encourage account creation 

This is something that we’d like to see publishers do a lot more of; encourage readers to create an account before they subscribe.

Why is this important? When a reader signs in across multiple devices and platforms (your website and your app), it allows us to stitch together a more accurate picture of how they are engaging with your publication.

The account creation process is also a tried and tested opportunity to gather really vital first-party and zero-party data points like their name and email address, demographic information as well their preferred content and interests.

All of this data can then be used to ensure you’re putting the right content and the right messaging in front of them as you nurture them through the paywall.

If possible, incentivise the account creation in some way, or you might even make it a requirement to read certain articles.

Burn through their “meter”

One of the most prevalent tactics amongst publishers at the moment is to impose a metered approach to content, where each reader has a set allotment of articles they can read each week or month before they are hit with the “stop”.

If you’re operating on this kind of model then your goal should be to encourage readers to burn through this meter as quickly as possible.

The effect is two-fold; you’re nurturing a habit of them visiting your properties regularly and you’re making sure they hit their limit and experience just enough frustration at not being able to read what they want.

That’s the ideal combination to drive a conversion.

By far the most impactful channel to help you do this is push notification. This will allow you to promote your best and most relevant content to readers at key times throughout the day, and actively encourage back on-site or into the app. Our clients have seen particularly good results with breaking news alerts via push messages. 

Personalised hardwall engagement

If your publication operates a hardwall (i.e. it’s a pure subscription play with no “freebies”) then you need to be very tactical around how and when you spring the “subscription prompt”.

Without the lure of a few free articles to coax readers along, you need to make sure you maximise every opportunity you have to engage them.

From our experience, an on-site message, triggered by exit intent (movement of the mouse that suggests the reader is about to leave the page) is a powerful way to communicate and make a connection.

What can be particularly effective is to let the reader know just how many times they’ve been to your site recently. Obviously, the point in doing so isn’t to rub it in, or annoy them, but to remind them that you are clearly publishing content they’d enjoy. And highlight, yes, that a subscription would unlock this content.

Using on-site messages to nudge a reader through the paywall

A campaign like the one above is set-up based on a profile attribute (are they a subscriber or not?) and the number of times they’ve visited your website in the last 30 days. 

If it’s in line with your strategy, this would be a perfect opportunity to share a special discount code or offer the first month free.

This is effective because whilst you may have your subscription options (monthly, quarterly, yearly etc) listed on the page, most visitors typically don’t even read them; they’re too preoccupied with their frustration at not being able to read the article they’ve clicked on.

The on-site massage is highly visible, forcing the reader to engage with it and not just absent-mindedly navigate away from the page (and unfortunately, your website).

And the inclusion of images adds to its impact and holds the reader’s attention just long enough to get them to consider a subscription. 

Email capture and nurture-journey

Across multiple studies of conversion rates within the publishing industry, it’s been shown that readers who are signed up to a publication’s email newsletter are between 5 and 10 times more likely to subscribe.

Let’s just unpack this statistic a little. Naturally, if a reader is interested enough in your content to sign up for your email then it stands to reason they’re more inclined to subscribe.

But there’s clearly something else at work here. Being able to send a reader a daily or weekly round-up of your best content is a very powerful way to nurture them to a point where they’re happy to go beyond the paywall.

So, one of the first things we recommend is that publishers make a more concerted effort to collect email addresses, especially from regular visitors without a subscription.

Growing your email subscription list to engage with readers

If appropriate, we recommend incentivizing the sign-up with an extra allowance of free articles, or maybe one day’s worth of unrestricted access, for example.  

If it’s not within your strategy to offer incentives, then simply highlight the advantages of this newsletter (i.e. “handpicked articles each week”).

When it comes to the actual nurturing campaign itself, we advise thinking about building a dedicated “non-subscriber” email list. By segmenting this audience and keeping them separate from your paid subscribers, you have the freedom to add a call-to-action within the email.

It means you can create a further segment of non-subscribers who are actively opening and engaging with these emails each week. This is a prime audience, on the verge of converting. They may just need a little extra nudge or incentive to get them through the paywall for the first time.

What’s next?

Xtremepush is the world’s leading platform for publishers looking to make better connections with their readers. We’re helping brands around the world to better understand and engage with potential subscribers, giving them the tools and the guidance they need to automate nurture funnels and deliver personalised content.