Paywall blockers: how publishers should prepare for this changing technology

With more than a quarter of all readers globally using ad blockers, the news media industry has had to come up with new ways to overcome this, whether it be technically or through new strategies. But as the industry makes the move towards reader revenue strategies, we’re seeing more readers employ new techniques and technologies to bypass paywalls as well. This week we’re exploring the state of paywall blockers today, what’s coming down the line, and how publishers are responding to this trend.

Publishers closing side doors to their content

Paywall blockers should come as no surprise; for as long as there have been paywalls, readers have been finding ways around them. It can be as rudimental as the copy/pasting of full articles in the comments of publishers’ social media posts, while more advance techniques are just a Google search away.

Already publishers have wised up to other common ways of avoiding paywalls, with The New York Times recently testing the closing of the ‘incognito leak‘ which allows non-subscribers to access additional content by opening the articles in an incognito window. While this bypass only works for publishers with soft paywalls, we’ve already seen many other publishers block this, including The Los Angeles Times and The Dallas Morning News.

Coming from social or search are also common side doors to access content normally behind a paywall. Google also ended its controversial “First Click Free” program, which means publishers today are not obligated to allow free access to their content in order to be included in Google search results.

A new challenge for your web strategy

What’s different in 2019 is the use of more automated methods to access content, with paywall blockers being released as software or browser extensions that block the JavaScript that triggers paywalls. As of now, we mainly see paywall blocker extensions available for FireFox, with nothing available for the browser preferred by 60% of web users, Chrome. Still, we expect this to change as paywall blockers become more popular.

While there will be ways for publishers to fend off such paywall blockers, most options will reduce fly-by users and the resulting advertising revenue. We expect to see more experiments from publishers on how they can make the best use of such paywall blocking readers, as we have already seen them do by growing their subscriptions via ad blockers.

Forcing users to log-in for any content is one way publishers can overcome paywall blockers, however this will impact the user experience for subscribers. We know it is important to reduce friction in the subscription process, for example The Seattle Times saw a 35% increase in conversions when it reduced the fields required to subscribe from 24 to just 9. But a frictionless experience is also needed for the reading experience as a subscriber. This means investing in your technical products, and making sure subscribers do not need to continuously log-in again. That’s something The New Yorker has had problems with recently, which Nieman Lab covered in depth.

While we know that the Web is very important for the reader journey, it is becoming more and more important for publishers to focus on their ePaper app strategy as it becomes harder to effectively paywall their content online. At Twipe we see that WebApp is the fastest growing platform on our ePaper distribution technology, which we expect to only increase in the coming years.

Paywall innovations

It’s no surprise to publishers that their paywalls have leaks, and until recently many had decided to keep those side doors opened, whether for additional advertising revenue or to allow the most determined readers to access content. This is changing however, with publishers reworking their paywall strategies.

The Boston Globe is one publisher that has worked to significantly tighten up its paywall. They have closed all types of paywall workarounds and reduced the number of stories subscribers can access. Through lengthening the timeframe of their paywall meter to sixty days, more readers are coming up against the paywall. Now non-subscribers can access just two stories per sixty day period. When they closed the “incognito loophole”, they saw they number of people who subscribed increase about 4%.

Other publishers are instead choosing to experiment with their paywall strategies, such as BoiseDev which has enacted a “timewall” instead. Paying members of this micro-news site in Idaho, USA are the first to receive local news stories, which are then published on the website the day after. On the other end is MittMedia, Sweden’s leading local media company. Their content is free for the first hour after it is published, meaning readers are incentivised to come back often to the website. This helps to gamify the user experience and drives increased frequency, which is key for retention.


Mary-Katharine Phillips
Mary-Katharine Phillips
Media innovation analyst @ Twipe
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