How Newspapers Can Get More Subscribers

By adding benefit language to their paywalls!

Why are newspapers dying? There are lots of reasons, but one contributing factor may be their paywall and subscription offers.

Sorry to be blunt, but they’re pretty awful. I spent a few hours reviewing paywall messages on dozens of newspaper websites, and what I found was uniformly unimpressive. In this article I’ll discuss some ways to fix the problem and increase your conversion rates.

Here’s the whole message in a nut shell. You have to remember that the consumer’s attitude is “what’s in it for me?” You have to offer something so compelling that he’ll take out his wallet and give you some of his hard-earned money, which he could be spending on something he cares about.

The worst thing you can do in your paywall or subscription offer is ask a question to which the reader can simply reply “no” and leave. Close to that in uselessness is when the reader thinks, “Yeah, so what?”

Here are some real-life examples I found, and my commentary.

“You’re running out of free articles.”

So what? I’m running out of all kinds of things, including hours in this day. Why do I care that I’m running out of free articles? What good are these articles to me? Why are they more valuable than the money you want me to give you?

“Keep reading with unlimited digital access.”

Again, this assumes the reader already believes there’s some benefit to digital access. What if he doesn’t?

What, after all, is the appeal of “unlimited digital access”? Absolutely nothing. I don’t want “unlimited digital access,” I want something I value. “Unlimited digital access” to content I don’t care about is not a benefit.

“Fresh and Factual: Daily reporting you can trust.”

This is a little better, since it appeals to the need to have information you can trust, which is a benefit. I think more could be done here, as I’ll explain below, but this is not quite as awful.

“Keep reading.”

Have you seen the internet? It’s literally full of stuff to read. Even if we leave aside Twitter, Instagram, blogs and so on, more content is published in an hour than any mortal can possibly read in a week. Maybe a year.

Reading is not a benefit. Reading stuff that I like is a benefit. Reading stuff that’s interesting is a benefit. Reading stuff that will help me to make more money, improve my health, make beautiful and interesting women want to talk to me …. Those are benefits.

People are assaulted with something like 5,000 ads in a day, and we’ve learned to ignore almost all of them. Some subroutine in the back of our over-exposed brains is saying “I don’t care, I don’t care, I don’t care.”

An offer needs to break through that with something the reader does care about.

“Full digital access.”

In other words, you have content you’re hiding from me to get me to pay. Why should I pay for it? I can find the same story 27,000 other places – for free. Why is yours different enough to make me give you money?

“Go unlimited with community-based reporting.”

This one popped up when I was trying to read an article on football. What do I care if the person who wrote it lives in my community?

Maybe I should care, but you need to make that case. I’m not going to slip into introspective, economics / philosophical mode to decide if I want to give you some money.

“Try four weeks free. You can cancel anytime.”

Free is nice, and might even get my attention. I’m still not sure why I want this site’s particular take on the news, and I know you’re trying to trick me, but “cancel anytime” eases that concern, and I know I can put a reminder in my calendar to cancel in three weeks and six days.

But during that 3 weeks and six days you’re going to have to convince me that your coverage is a benefit to me. If you want my money, you’re going to have to show me what benefit I get from your coverage, otherwise I get 27 days for free, and then I’m gone.

“I appreciate the obvious effort to get the story right and to rebuff fake news.”

This was an interesting one. It tells me a little about where you’re coming from. If that perspective on the news appeals to me, I might pay. It’s not the greatest benefit language, but at least you’re trying.

“To continue reading, subscribe now. Support balanced reporting and investigative journalism. Less than a dollar a week.”

That’s not terrible. Again, I get a sense where you’re coming from. But I’m still not clear why this helps me. What does balanced reporting and investigative journalism do for me? How does it make my life better?

“Thanks for reading The Times. Create your free account or log in to continue reading.”

A free account would sound nice if I didn’t already have 3,000 free accounts that I can’t keep track of, and which might be hacked this Thursday. Also, I’m not sure what I get from it.

One recurring theme in these ads is that the reader has to do the work. The reader has to supply the benefit. That’s what they should be telling me!

Below that same ad is “support independent journalism.” Sure, sure. 2 percent of the population believes that.

I clicked on the “subscription offers” link from the same site and got “Unlimited access to all the journalism we offer.”

Dammit. When is somebody going to tell me what I get out of any of this? “Access to journalism”? Why do I want that? When will you tell me something that matters to me, like “stay informed,” “win at trivia,” “impress your colleagues,” “find investment opportunities,” “lower your tax bill,” ….

Making that list got me thinking. Isn’t there some paper that has pictures of beautiful people on page 6? Not that pictures of beautiful people are scarce, but at least it’s a possible benefit. What do they do?

First, they try to sell me their e-newsletter, which isn’t a bad idea, but the execution is all wrong.

“Get our top stories delivered to your inbox every morning.”

I’ve been waiting all day for that! My inbox is so lonely and empty, I really need something else in it. Desperately. Like … I wake up every morning thinking, “Gee, I hope there’s something in my inbox.”

I never did hit a paywall on that site.

“Support local journalism.”

I wouldn’t call that a benefit so much as a guilt trip. It’s like supporting the mom and pop store over the big chain, but …. Really? Also, before you play that card, check to see if I’m local. In this case I was about 1,000 miles away.

“Get full access to the facts.”

Why would I believe you have the facts, or that you’ll tell them to me straight? Journalists are among the least trusted people in America. Most people believe journalists have an agenda and that they lie to promote that agenda. (Don’t believe me, go look it up.)

Well …. This was a tiresome and discouraging exercise, but I hope you get the point. If you want to sell a newspaper, you have to overcome some obvious barriers.

  1. Most people don’t trust you.
  2. It’s easy to find the same information on a free site.
  3. Your story might be nice to have, but your prospects don’t know why it’s worth their money, which they can spend on beer. And, most importantly …
  4. How will your content make your reader’s life better?

You can’t assume a prospective reader already believes in the value of your content. You have to make that case.

How do you do that? Look through your site critically. What’s there that people might value?

You probably want to believe it’s your genius take on the news and current events, but – you know what? – it might be the puzzles. It might be the discounts on tires. It might be the movie reviews, or the tips on a place to get a good sandwich.

Make lists of benefits – that is, how what you provide improves your readers’ lives. Get very practical. Put a dollar value on it when you can. Then, convert those ideas into offers, and A/B test them until you find the one that works.

Despite the critical tone, I hope this review was useful. If you need help with your paywall, your e-newsletter offerings, renewals, retention, managing a customer data platform, or any other kind of publishing or marketing technology, give me a call.

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