A Subscription Website Paywall That Adapts to User Behavior

subscription website

The Wall Street Journal is using a subscription website paywall that caters its content offerings dependent on user behavior. Will more digital, multiplatform publishers try this strategy in the future?

We are always dialed in to the evolution of subscription website publishing and marketing. When interesting developments occur, we are the first in the industry to share the news and look into the effectiveness, efficiency, and benefit behind the changes.

In this spirit we are looking today at The Wall Street Journal’s new paywall and how it operates. The Drum reports, “For the last four years, The Wall Street Journal has been building a paywall that adapts to reader behaviour and decides how many free (sample) articles they should get access to. This adaptive paywall is designed to drive subscribers and communicate the value of joining the Dow Jones family.”

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“The Wall Street Journal’s paywall houses a machine-learning algorithm that measures reader activity across 60 variables including visit frequency, recency, depth, favoured devices and preferred content types. This forms a propensity score, a unique subscription probability, that then helps inform how many sample stories users can access.”

“In short, reader activity shapes how much Wall Street Journal content they can sample.”

This subscription website paywall involves multiple, established subscription models in one. “The adaptive paywall sits apart from the three largely established models: freemium where content is not born equal; metered, with its arbitrary free read figure; and the hard paywall that strictly admits only subscribers.”

The article continues with commentary from Karl Wells, general manager of Wall Street Journal membership and subscription sales. Here, Wells describes the initial process of setting up the paywall to stop users who were sidestepping the payment process, which involved going after Google’s First Click Free. “Google’s First Click Free, which allowed access to all content regardless of the presence of any paywall – the publication was a major critic of this approach. It pulled out of the scheme and traffic from Google was immediately down by 38%, while Google News referrals also fell by 89% in August 2017 year on year. But the revolt worked, as Google ended the scheme entirely last year and opened up flexible sampling controlled by each publication instead.”

Wells continues by talking about the company’s “leaky” paywall used over the past few years to collect data and try subscription sale experiments. Here is his description of their paywall: “We are a dynamic paywall, we can flex based on audience but as far as the consumer sees, we are a freemium paywall.”

Wells continues in the article to share his reasons why publishers will like this subscription website model. “While most paywalls on the market offer a one-size-fits all approach (a hard paywall won’t budge, a metered effort will limit everyone to the same volume of articles), by making a more complex system, the WSJ has learned just how long users have to be engaged with the brand before they make a leap for the subscription.”

Do you need to evolve your subscription website? If you’d like to discuss how we can help you increase your audience, revenue and profits, please reach out to schedule a no obligation chat with a member of our consulting team.