Paywall or no paywall? That’s been the biggest question facing publishers in recent years, as everyone from iconic media brands to local papers struggles to find a business model that works in the digital age.
Do you put all your content online (like The Guardian, or Immediate’s BBC Good Food), with the chance to attract huge global audiences and find ways to monetise them?
Do you put all your articles behind a login (like The Times), accept the loss of traffic and search visibility, and go for a subscription model?
Or do you try something in the middle, perhaps a pay-as-you-go model, or limited free access to tempt readers in – a model adopted by several of Immediate’s consumer magazines?
There’s no one answer – all of these models can deliver depending on business strategy.
But where the media brands have had to lead, making sometimes costly mistakes, membership organisations can now follow. Content for membership organisations can work in two ways: to draw in a new audience from search and social (leading them towards membership), and to reward and retain existing members. If you want the world to know about you, you need your best content to be open and ranking well. But if you want to reward loyal members with great content, it can’t be open to all. How do you square the circle?
Here are four different solutions:
1. Is your content worth paying for? Put it in a members’ exclusive area
If your content is sufficiently valuable, putting it behind a login is a logical step. This model is a staple in the professional membership sector, where members pay to access tools and resources that can further their careers. Our client, the General Osteopathic Council, uses its O zone for practising osteopaths in this way.
And the same model can work in the consumer space for highly engaged members. Immediate’s BBC History magazine has a subscriber-only archive, The Library, a 10-year treasure trove of articles and research that helps drive digital and overseas subscriptions among real history buffs. If you have resources your target audience is willing to pay for, exclusive is likely the way to go.
2. Can you use your content to tease membership? Use the ‘freemium’ model
In the quest to balance the SEO value of open content with the revenue generated by exclusive content, many publishers have landed on the freemium model.
In this scenario, all content is visible to everyone (and Google) at headline level, but non-members/non-subscribers can only read a limited amount. That could be a certain number of articles a month (The Spectator, for example), or certain types of article (The Telegraph has a mixture of free and Premium). News publishers frequently adjust the level of access to take advantage of spikes in demand during big stories, and The Telegraph even, reportedly, has a ‘self-learning paywall’ which manages this process algorithmically.) In the membership space, an example would be the Ramblers Association’s walks archive – everyone gets to see short walks, but longer routes are only available to members.
3. Are you looking to build a new member pipeline? Try free registration
There is a handy middle ground between open access and paid content: free registration. Registered users provide a halfway house to membership – as The Spectator puts it bluntly: “We hope that this will tempt you to join us as a full subscriber.”
Asking non-members to register on your website allows you to build rapport with them by email and build up to a tailored membership ask. And for visitors it’s often a fair quid pro quo – an email address in return for content.
There are a number of compelling and natural ways to ask users to register – to take part in discussion forums (like the RSPB’s community), to enter competitions (like BBC Gardeners’ World), or to receive tailored newsletters (like Saga or the National Trust). So if the user experience is good, a free registration can be the beginning of a long-term, ever-deepening relationship.
4. Want to build a movement? Link your cause with your content
One British media giant has managed to build a million-strong supporter base by offering them little more than a feel-good factor. The Guardian makes all its content freely available, but asks those who value it to support it – as its editor explains. Fuelled by a tumultuous recent news agenda, the paper has built a game-changing coalition around its particular brand of journalism.
And although The Guardian’s editor says it is not a charity, its tactics are very similar to non-profit fundraising – with content as the cause. Could this work for membership organisations? Certainly there’s a potential model here for organisations with large, engaged online audiences – for example, arts and culture institutions. If your website, YouTube and social channels are providing lots of visitors with great free content, why not simply ask them to support you as a member?