Like many publishers, Swedish media group MittMedia, which owns dozens of regional and national news brands, has been honing its paywall to strike the balance between acquisition and retention.
Across 20 of MittMedia’s sites, all content published is open for the first hour in order to drive the maximum reach before readers hit the paywall. Articles are marked with “provläs till,” which translates as “test read,” with the time it’s accessible until in green text. According to the publisher, opening up all content for the first 60 minutes has led to an increased subscriber conversion rate of 20%. The publisher was unable to share specific numbers.
It’s no secret to news publishers that the speed of publishing in general, is critical. MittMedia has found that average pageviews for articles peak approximately an hour after they’ve published. The graph below shows the average article pageviews against the number of minutes from publishing. The growth curve is much steeper than the one trailing, but most articles have the majority of their traffic after the peak.
“This means the business model for selling content is a long-tail model,” said Magnus Engström, head of data strategy.
The publisher has 140,000 digital and print subscribers, which has doubled since the beginning of 2017. Digital-only subscribers account for just over 60,000. In 2016, the publisher tightened its paywall but this model meant it struggled to get enough pageviews.
“We decided the easiest way to get new readers was through recommendations,” said Katarina Ellemark, product manager at MittMedia. “We trust people a lot more than we trust newsletters, we want people to continue sharing our pieces. This was a soft threshold.”
MittMedia tested the time wall on and off for six months in 2017, turning it on permanently to generate more ad inventory after the publisher had sold out just before Black Friday in November.
“It was a win-win situation,” said Ellemark. “We had people following the metrics closely, and no one was cherry-picking all the articles in the first 60 minutes. The only feedback we got from users was, why wasn’t the feature in the app?” The feature isn’t available in MittMedia’s apps partly because users show different behaviors, reading more articles more frequently in app.
Building the time wall wasn’t complicated. It took eight designers and developers around two weeks. “The innovation for us was doing it so soon after the paywall,” she added. “The gut feeling in the company was, what are we doing, do we really want to drill a hole right through it? But for the users, it’s super logical; it’s easier for them to decide whether we’re worth the price.”
Publishers have opened up paywalls during busy breaking-news periods to drive reach and ad revenue. But the consensus is these fly-by readers from social and search tend to be less loyal and low value. In Sweden, publishers have healthy direct traffic. MittMedia has lowered dependency on referral traffic: 86% of pageviews are direct, social and search account for 5% and 7%, respectively, according to the publisher. MittMedia tabloid Vestmanlands Läns Tidning has 70% of direct traffic, according to Similar Web.
Equally, Swedes have a higher propensity to pay for online news: 26%, according to the Reuters Institute Digital News Report, paid for online news in the last year, an increase of 6% from the year previous. This falls to 16% in the U.S. and just 7% in the U.K.
Opening the gates to drive reach and volume is one way of growing prospects, the success then depends on the ability to gather data on audiences, said David Gosen, chief commercial officer at Cxense, which helps publishers with content recommendation services.
“Using time can be a valuable part,” he said, “but the overriding subscription strategy has to be reader-led: Serving relevant content to the reader leads to better conversion rates. At its core, future success in the subscription business is unquestionably driven by the AI capabilities to process huge volumes of data to segment and target prospects to convert.”
The received wisdom is, in general, 10% of people will convert; the other 90% need to be monetized through other means like advertising. MittMedia told Digiday in February that churn rate was at that time between 12 and 14%.
“Entering a market you have to be very careful in reducing price,” said Ellemark. “Conversion is a balancing act, and what works for us doesn’t for everyone. The paid content business is an ecosystem, even if you have the best content it needs to be easy to use.”