What is a soft paywall?

Soft paywalls are a type of paywall that features access to free articles with some restrictions to premium content. A soft paywall makes it possible for members to join a community for free and sample what it has to offer. A common example is being able to access the first 2 or 3 articles of a news site at no cost. Once you’ve reached this limit, the site will either ask you to register to continue reading or to pay for future access.
This differs from a hard paywall where users are required to subscribe immediately in order to access the whole community, or metered paywalls where users get full access but only for a set trial time period.

Why might publishers use soft paywalls?

Audiences come in all shapes and sizes, and so do paywall solutions. Yet many digital publishers still use a one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to data capture and registration.
With other news sites and blogs offering at least some freemium access, hard paywalls are often not enough anymore for people who are accustomed to free content. Many publishers turn to soft paywalls to appeal to these modern audiences who expect free content. Enabling users to read and access parts of the site keeps these users engaged for longer, and builds a relationship before asking them to subscribe for full access.

What are the experts saying about soft paywalls?

Soft paywalls generally have a lot of praise in the publishing industry, with many news publishers seeing increased signups after implementing them. Research done by American Press Institute’s Media Insights Project found that on average, 47% of new subscribers signup after running out of free articles on a site they like and respect.
And the Media Insights Project wasn’t the only one to see these findings. GateHouse Media found similar results when they implemented a soft paywall model, allowing readers to consume two articles for free before asking them to register and unlock three more articles. After implementing this model, GateHouse Media found that a registered user is 4x more likely to become a digital subscriber compared to an anonymous one.
So with results like that, it should come as no surprise that as of 2022, nearly 45% of all media houses use a freemium/soft paywall model of some sort.
But with soft paywalls becoming so popular, will customers get tired of the same old model? Possibly if every publisher followed the exact same formula, but many publishers are experimenting with different types of soft paywalls. For example, MittMedia saw great results recently by implementing a timed soft paywall. Opening up all content on their site for 60 minutes instead of enforcing a limit on the number of articles accessible to readers made for a refreshing take on the soft paywall everyone is familiar with, and the idea paid off! This approach meant they were able to increase subscriber conversions by 20%.
Overall it’s safe to say that experts and industry leaders alike are recommending soft paywalls of some sort, and it looks like it’s a model that’s going to be here to stay for the future.

How can a soft paywall help you increase revenue?

Soft paywalls have been linked to higher revenue for a number of reasons:
    1. They allow readers to access a certain number of articles for free, which encourages them to subscribe, meaning you’re more likely to have unknown users convert to registered and subscribers.
    2. They help boost circulation and website traffic- Free articles are easy to share and talk about online, meaning more eyes view and talk about your content, so your brand has more coverage.
    3. They allow publishers to track reader behaviour and interests- While this tracking really comes into play with intelligent paywalls, publishers can still track what articles readers engage with most with a soft paywall too. With a better idea of which pieces of content are more popular among your readers, you can tailor your content strategy accordingly.
The above benefits could also lead to higher conversions as users are more likely to sign up for your mailing list or buy your products once they’ve built a relationship with you. Peter Marsh, an executive with US technology company Newscycle, discovered that retention rates appear to be significantly higher for newspapers that use soft or metered paywalls as opposed to hard paywalls.
“Most publishers with hard paywalls are reporting retention rates as low as 15-20%. Retention rates for newspapers using metered paywalls average 58.5%, with some reporting as much as 90% reader retention.”

Are there any downsides to using a soft paywall?

There is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question, as the decision of whether to use a soft paywall strategy or a different one will depend on the specific needs of the publisher. However, there are a few potential downsides:
  • Soft paywalls can be more difficult to implement than hard paywalls, especially if you plan on implementing them in-house where you may require additional technical resources.
  • They might not generate audiences that are as loyal as hard paywalls- this is because readers who commit to subscribing on a hard paywall are likely to have a higher intent to do so i.e. they’ve heard of the brand and know exactly what they’re signing up to.
  • Today’s audiences want personalisation- soft paywalls still have limited flexibility when it comes to personalising trial types and available content.

How can you implement a soft paywall easily?

If you are considering using a soft paywall strategy, be sure to take the time to understand its benefits as well as any potential downsides before making your decision.
For additional help with paywalls, we encourage you to download our e-guide: The 7 paywall questions that worry CTOs
Learning which paywalls convert your readers most effectively shouldn’t be guesswork. In a lot of cases, the smoothest way to create a paywall model is actually by leveraging a subscription experience platform.
Zephr’s subscription experience platform allows you to segment users based on attributes and behaviour so that different user experiences and conversion strategies can be experimented with and learned from. Speak with one of our experts today to see how you can build, deploy and rebuild paywalls within minutes, optimising the performance and capturing happy customers for life.

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