Paywalls in the Social Media Era

In 2015, approximately 79 percent of U.S. newspapers (77 out of 98) with circulations of more than 50,000 were using a digital subscription model,according American Press Institute.  Just five years prior, only six newspapers had a paywall. However, the increasing use of paywalls can pose a challenge for publishers looking to expand reach and gain subscribers through social media.

A report by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism shows that the use of social media as a news source approximately doubled between 2012 and 2015 to 40 percent, showcasing the importance of social media in the news industry.

To effectively reach new users on social media and simultaneously grow subscription revenue, news outlets have begun creating selective experiences for users outside its paywall while continuing to offer a significant amount of high-quality content only to subscribers.

Early paywalls, such as that of The New York Times in 2011, had “loopholes” that allowed unlimited content views to users clicking through from social media. Though such loopholes may have created an opportunity for more readers to engage with a publisher’s content, it could have also resulted in a missed opportunity to convert a reader into a subscriber. Because of this, many publishers are focusing on paywall strategies that can drive subscription growth even through social media traffic.

Earlier this year, The New York Times began limiting content views through its paywall guidelines to those who accessed articles from its Facebook and Twitter accounts. Though The Times posts content through Facebook’s Instant Articles, which readers can access for free, it specifically selects the content that will be hosted through that platform. Through this strategy, The Times is able to both engage with its current audience and showcase its content to Facebook readers who may have never seen it behind a paywall opening up new opportunities for audience growth and profitability.

Utilizing a similar method, the Financial Times last year loosened its paywall structure from its former metered article format to paid trials where users can pay a small amount to access content on a monthly basis. The news outlet also adjusted its social media approach by making more of its content free to users visiting via a posted link, allowing non-subscribers one article per day coming from Facebook or Twitter. And with 32 percent of U.S. news consumers sharing a news story through email or social media, allowing specific content to be shared outside the paywall restrictions could result in more users engaging with the brand from the start, instead of being stuck behind a paywall upon their first interaction with the publication.

But publishers are also looking beyond Facebook and Twitter to other social media platforms to share content and experiences beyond their paywall to facilitate growth and engagement. The Wall Street Journal began utilizing Snapchat Discover  this year to share five original stories per week, comprised of a daily edition of eight snaps of a variety of stories. The Wall Street Journal, which has had a paywall since 1997, creates these news experiences for followers for free outside of their content limit, working to establish connections with a younger audience. Additionally, the publication hopes that over time it will be able to acquire new subscribers with this platform as a potential touchpoint for new growth.

By having certain selected experiences operate outside of the main paywall guidelines, publishers are providing news consumers and potential subscribers with the opportunity to engage with their content where they already are—social media—and demonstrate the value of a subscription to consistently engage with its high-quality content. With so many options available, publishers have the ability to experiment with social media platforms and paywalls, working not to keep readers out, but to invite them in.


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