Paywalls are fine, but let’s make them more shareable

I’m trying to write more in February, and besides thing I’ll write for work, I’ll also be writing about one of the few things I know about: digital media.

What do I do? In short, I get the right information, at the right time, to the right audiences. And I’d like to help media, in particular, be better at this. (here’s the longer version)

Like this? Hate it? Did I miss something? Email me or @ me.

Wired is adopting a paywall. Good for them.

Now, I’m exactly that type of casual fan Wired will lose because I like the articles, and occasionally will drift to the site on my own, not solely through referrals, but I also don’t think it’s essential enough to my life to subscribe. That’s OK! They don’t really benefit from me now.

So, that’s the bet: Wired believes it has enough people who want to make a habit of the magazine to offset the loss of eyeballs and (superficial?) buzz that a free website creates.

Wired, for me, is not essential enough. I do think this is worth a shot, however, as Nicholas Thompson did great work with New Yorker’s website, where he astutely built a bench of online writers without antagonizing the print side and while dealing with limited free pageviews.

Here’s what I don’t understand, however: Why isn’t there a better mechanism beyond paywalls and micropayments to enable the sharing of newspapers and magazines — the “readership per copy” phenomenon that circulation departments relied upon for decades?

Wired’s paywall structure is fine: You pay, you get stuff, including the content. But it doesn’t replicate the old days of a Wired subscriber, where you might have the magazine arrive to a household, to be read by all, or to an office or library or some other public/semi-public place where the actual readership is some difficult-to-quantify multiple of the subscriber total.

The closest I’ve experienced personally is with the New York Times and The New Yorker, where I’ve been able to give a free gift subscription to someone, essentially doubling my buy (for the first year, at least).

At my job, without giving away anything, we’ve had past and ongoing partnerships with publishers where our readers — people clicking through the encoded links in our newsletters — can bypass paywalls one way or another because they’re known to the publisher as SmartBrief readers (disclaimer: I’m writing this post as a private individual and not as a representative of SmartBrief or the company’s views/opinions/actions, etc.)

So, this isn’t purely a technical hurdle. One example that came to mind while thinking through this post was The Wall Street Journal, which was known for making freely available any clicks on WSJ stories that came from its reporters’ social accounts. Even closer to what I’m envisioning is another item in that link:

It’s now testing 24-hour guest passes for non-subscribers, an offer that pops up when readers access a story shared by a subscriber or a Journal staffer. (If you don’t enter your email address, you just get to read the one story.) Down the line, the Journal may also be testing other time increments for the guest passes.

I don’t know the status of that test, unfortunately. But I do think there’s something worth exploring in the idea of re-creating the shared document that is the newspaper and magazine.

The Financial Times, that scrappy and tech-savvy UK publication, is way ahead of me, I discovered. Here’s a description of their test from 2015 — again, I haven’t yet found out whether there’s new information:

A key passage:

We decided to build a fully-working proof of concept to enable a subscriber (who we’ll call a sharer) to ‘spend’ their gift article credits (10 per month, by default) by copying the URL of the article they are viewing into an email (or IM, Tweet, blog post, presentation slide, PDF etc). Any recipients (up to a limit), whether subscribed, signed in, or anonymous, would be able to click on that link and immediately get to see the article in full with no further nagging or obstruction from the site. Perhaps there might be a nice little message saying “with compliments from Person X or Company Y”. The sharer’s article credits would be checked for and decremented only when a recipient attempted to view the article.

If a second person (or more than the number allowed by that share action) was to click on the shared link, they would be greeted with a polite message informing them that the share credit for that article has already been used up, or possibly just the regular paywall barrier message.

Taking it further, we would give the sharer flexibility to control how many recipients they wanted to allow on a share-by-share basis, allowing a specified or unlimited number of recipients. ‘Unlimited’ in this case, would be constrained by the number of gift credits held by the sharer which they could top up, for a fee, or wait for the next month’s free allocation.

So, there you go. This isn’t a choice between just free and just paywalls. Your paywall people have taken up the habit of your publication. That’s great. But what about those people who just might adopt you as a habit but have no way in — no open house, as it might be.

I think most publications could do worse than testing, a la the FT and WSJ, the idea of shareable, permeable paywalls in the fashion of the old magazine/newspaper laying around. Protect the value of the subscription while letting the outside world know how great life can be behind the wall.

2 thoughts on “Paywalls are fine, but let’s make them more shareable

  1. Honestly if anyone can show me a functioning, seamless micropayment system that works with chrome and android and ios and doesn’t have a horrendous user experience / set up and doesn’t require a publisher to make a deal with an unproven vendor I will micropay them .000001BTC (pre segwit) using said system.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, you make great points. That reminds me of another problem I didn’t get into — that publishers have the hardest time keeping subscribers logged in across devices and browsers. Yet another barrier to a seamless experience.


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