The Path to Subscriptions: A 5 Step Plan for Paywall Success

By January 8, 2018Analytics

Plummeting print subscriptions, digital ad blockers and unstable ad revenues continue to threaten the digital news industry. Publishers have been experimenting with ways to strike a balance between readership and revenue. Now more than ever, paywalls have become a critical lifeline. About 80% of U.S. newspapers have launched digital paywalls (then withdrawn, retooled and re-launched several times) with varying results. There are many different reasons why paywalls can succeed or fail. Regardless of what type of paywall you employ, developing a measurement strategy to determine the paywall’s impact on subscriptions and revenue is critical to discovering your site’s strengths and weaknesses.

Creating a strategy to determine the success of the paywall can be just as tricky as implementing the paywall itself – although it doesn’t have to be. By using these 5 steps:

1. Planning your measurement strategy well in advance,

2. Centrally managing the entire process,

3. Choosing the right tools,

4. Allowing sufficient time for development with thorough testing and, of course,

5. Measuring success

You can leverage your paywall not only to improve profits, but to provide more value for your audience.

1. Plan the measurement strategy well in advance

As with any website, mobile app, or other digital asset project, your strategy should start with a well-researched plan that includes an outline of the project business requirements for the paywall and a measurement strategy that aligns with those business requirements. The plan should include an analytics specialist or team that offers consultation during the planning phase.

Because the analytics team likely won’t be able to complete their implementation until all of the other components have been built out, planning ahead for your data needs helps the development process to run more smoothly. Asking some basic questions will help guide the planning process:

– What is the purpose of the digital property?

– What data is needed to perform actionable analysis?

– Where is this data coming from?

– How can we capture it into our analytics suite?

In a multi-vendor environment, such as a paywall on a content management system (CMS) website, the required analytics data to track can, and often does, come from several different components of the system. Therefore, when planning to implement analytics for your paywall, it is important to identify:

– What data will be accessible

– Where and how it will be located

– Who is responsible for making the data available in the analytics suite

– What logic and coding will be necessary to add custom dimensions, custom metrics, etc.

2. Manage the Project Centrally

Implementing a paywall requires the coordination of multiple stakeholders and vendors. Depending on the structure of the digital asset and the solutions that are chosen, the project could require one or more of each type of vendor or in-house resource, including a website/CMS developer, paywall vendor, authorization vendor, shopping cart/payment vendor, digital analytics specialists, and analytics stakeholders (those that need the data to make decisions).

To best coordinate your team, we recommend appointing a project manager that is the one main point of contact for all vendors and internal teams. Each team or vendor should have its own project manager or team lead, and the representatives should report to one central person that manages your project internally.

Ideally, a project management application is used to assist in tracking tasks and schedules as well as collaboration and communication. We recommend cloud based tools like Google Sheets, Trello, and Slack to keep the entire team organized and informed with all updates as they happen. There should also be an easily accessible project library with contact info, schedules, and most importantly, all reference materials including data requirements and dictionaries.

Another critical responsibility of the central management role is managing the accounts that access your web hosting, analytics, tag management and related applications. Every individual user must have his or her own user account that has customized permissions relative to their specific role.

While this sounds tedious, imagine having several people from one vendor using a single login then finding that changes have been made, but no one person has accountability – it happens far too often. For analytics, this is especially important in the tag management solution, where the entire project could be affected. Not only should every person on the team have their own unique login, but you should be clear with all vendors that they are not sharing individual user accounts for any reason and all publishing must be approved and scheduled in advance.

3. Choose the Right Tools

While paywall vendors may provide basic transactional data that can be used to perform some basic analysis, customizable analytics solutions like Google Analytics or Adobe Analytics can provide a more comprehensive, site-wide view of audience behavior and conversions. Tag management systems, like Google Tag Manager (GTM) or Adobe’s Dynamic Tag Management (DTM), should be implemented in conjunction with the analytics suites to provide more tagging flexibility with less coding and faster deployment. Tag manager tools are decidedly more effective in the integration of data from third party components and add-ons such as a paywall, rather than having to code and maintain tags on every page.

Another part of optimizing your analytics platform is using the “data layer”, a generic, global JavaScript object that streamlines the data collection process for the tag managers. The data layer is used like a mini data warehouse within the website and is considered a best practice method of gathering disparate data throughout a digital property with multiple components – perfect for using with a paywall.

When used in conjunction with a tag manager, these tools provide a flexible and highly customizable analytics solution that can provide the level of detail that you need for your analysis with significantly less coding and testing overhead. 

4. Allow sufficient time for development and testing cycles

Getting digital projects off the ground and running can often take considerably longer than initially projected. There can be a tendency to rush through development and testing cycles; setting tight deadlines for publishing and reporting. Unfortunately, even the most experienced professionals can be at risk for errors when required to expedite coding, testing, and bug fixes, especially when several different teams are involved.

When planning for the development process of the paywall, allow vendors and related resources the time that they normally require for their work; requiring tighter deadlines adds an additional level of risk to the project. A rushed implementation can be time consuming to troubleshoot and fix.

Once implementation is complete, thorough and consistent quality assurance testing (QA) is critical to validating the implementation on both the outgoing calls and the incoming data. QA testing typically includes the following:

– Run through all of the main use cases (open site, log in, play video, etc) with a debugger application that displays the analytics call contents

– Confirm all data is being sent to the correct analytics account

– Confirm all page views and events are firing when expected

– Confirm all applicable analytics attributes are setting, and that corresponding values are correct in the page views and events

– Confirm that the data is being properly collected into the analytics application when possible (data validation)

As a general rule, QA should not be performed by the team that writes and implements the code, but by an analyst that is familiar with all features and functions of the site. Documentation should always be kept for QA results for benchmarking and historical information.

5. Measure Success

A well designed and implemented analytics strategy should make measuring success easy. Successfully validating both the implementation and data provides a rich source of information to glean useful and actionable insights. If the paywall is being added to an existing site, there should already be analytics to build on for historical analysis and comparison in order to truly understand its impact. In general, along with your own specific goals and needs, a successful analytics strategy should provide the following information:

– What content types or categories drive the most conversions (subscriptions sales)? Types can include articles, video on demand, or live streaming content. Content categories can include sports, international news, local news, technology, etc.

– How did visitors that became paid subscribers get to the site? Are readers that have converted more likely to come from social media links, paid search advertising, campaign emails, or did they navigate directly to the site?

– Are visitors “falling out” of the sales funnel while trying to convert? If the entire checkout process is tagged properly, the sales funnel can be monitored to determine if there any problems in the check out process that may prevent conversions.

If comparable historical data exists, how has the paywall affected metrics such as:

– Overall conversion rate?

– Visitor return frequency?

– Visitor time spent on site?

– Number of pages viewed per visitor?

Creating dashboards and reports to analyze and monitor these success metrics will help guide future decision making. Determining which content types and categories to augment or which social media advertising platform to invest in and expand will help your organization to zero in on what works and what doesn’t. If your reports do not achieve that goal, you will need to experiment and adjust accordingly or bring in an experienced analytics consultant to audit the implementation.

Just as every news or media site is unique, so is every analytics implementation. Although the five points above could apply to just about any analytics project, paywall analytics can be a bit trickier depending on the vendor and the technologies employed. Using and maintaining the above recommendations for your paywall strategy will help your site to become more profitable and provide more value for your audience.

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