What is a Paywall?

Digital magazines are relying less on advertising by implementing paywalls that influence more subscriptions


Remember the days when digital editions of magazines were only available by paid subscriptions? You’d arrive at a static home page with a snapshot of the recent issues, and then be prompted to sign in or register to view any content. The landscape of online viewership has changed dramatically in recent years, due to separating “free” from “premium” content, and implementing metered paywalls into website architecture.

If you’re new to the industry of online publishing, you might be asking yourself, what is a paywall, anyway? In this post, we’re going to give you a quick explanation and explore how subscription-based magazines and news websites use these tools to their advantage, because yes, users want to pay for content.


What is a paywall and how can it help build your subscriber base?

In the simplest terms, a paywall is a barrier that permits access to premium (or “paid for”) content. To view articles, videos, or archives, web visitors have to sign up for a subscription package and pay-to-view.

Nowadays, paywalls are implemented in two ways: the traditional method (what we just outlined) and the metered method (which is becoming popular among magazines today). You can also do a combination of both.

For a long time, especially for online editions of newspapers, all viewable content was hidden behind a paywall. You can think of it as purchasing a magazine off the rack or having it delivered to your doorstep: you’re paying to read all of the content on the pages. Nothing is free, but you can usually flip through the articles before you decide to purchase (more on this later).

The traditional paywall method

As we outlined above, a regular paywall has long been a pay-to-view barrier. However, many magazines are giving access to free content as well, viewable and searchable by anyone surfing the internet.

When you arrive at the homepage of publication’s website, there is content you can view or watch without having to pay. This type of content usually comes in the form of a blog post, newsletter, videos, or articles.

But what is a paywall supposed to accomplish if some content is available for free? Well, giving access to free content can better guide web visitors to becoming paying subscribers or members. At Mequoda, we considered this tactic as one of our best practices for converting visitors into multiplatform magazine subscribers.

Allowing web visitors to view content for free helps publications in several ways. Here are a few of the main points:

  • Free content is not “hidden” behind a paywall. It’s searchable online, which improves search traffic.
  • Gives you a better chance to build anticipation and interest towards premium content.
  • You can gain trust with your potential subscriber by giving them freebies.
  • A web portal (the website in front of the paywall) can help define a better sales funnel. You can gain email addresses with free newsletters and video channels.
  • You can give free “sneak peeks” at the content and features that are behind the paywall.

What is a paywall that’s “metered”?

Many subscription websites are implementing a metered paywall along with free, viewable content on their web portal. But what’s a paywall that’s “metered”? Well, as the phrase suggests, the metered paywall is one that measures how many times a web visitor has viewed premium content for free. After a pre-determined number of premium views, a paywall tells the subscriber they’ve hit their limit and need to subscribe to continue reading premim content.

Earlier I mentioned thinking of a paywall like purchasing a magazine off a rack or having it delivered to your house; you’re paying to view the content within the pages. But you can usually flip through a magazine and read that “pay for” content before you decide to make the purchase or fill out a subscription card.

That’s a feature the metered paywall is mirroring. You can view a certain number of premium content pieces before being asked to subscribe and continue. Some big name magazine and newspaper publishers have implemented a metered paywall with great success, including TIME, the New Yorker, Esquire, and more.

We’d like to hear your opinion. Share in the comments what you think about paywalls and how they’re executed today. Do you have any examples that work particularly well? Or not so good? Let us know! 



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