Hiding Behind the Paywall: What Content Customers Will Pay For

Niche publishers tend to have a lot of fear about hiding any of their content behind a paywall.
I often hear the same concerns over and over from my clients. Perhaps you’re hitting one of these mental roadblocks right now yourself. But first and foremost, these fears are myths we can debunk.

1. No one will pay for my content.

There is content people will pay for — and you can create it. The key is to do your research (more on that in a minute) in order to create pieces that meet your customers’ needs and drive results for them.

2. I don’t want to give anything away for free. If I do, no one will pay for my content.

There are others who think people will pay for their content, but only if they charge for everything. If you give some of your content away for free, people have no reason to come back for more when it costs.

This claim has been proven false time and time again by other successful publications. Different content serves different purposes. You simply have to understand what purpose each of your pieces of content serves, place it on either side of your wall accordingly, then drive your warmest leads towards your paid model.

3. Google will ding me.

Google has changed the rules of the game again. Usually when people hear “Google has changed the rules of the game again,” it’s cause for panic. Oh no, will my traffic plummet like a lead balloon because of some algorithm adjustment? Will the quality of my leads suffer?

Well, for once, this is a good rule change for content creators. As of October 1, Google eliminated its “First Click Free” policy, which basically meant content behind the paywall was ignored by Google unless you gave the search engine traffic access to the article without a subscription.

This access is how people were able to game paywalls — if you googled the headline of an article you wanted to read, you could get instant access. I know none of you loyal readers ever did such a thing!

Now, if your developer places the proper code on your site, you can allow Google to crawl your premium content, and they won’t ding you in search results.

You can read more about the updates to Google’s algorithm here.

Content Customers Will Pay For

By now, it should be clear that paywalls offer more benefits than drawbacks. But how do you go about creating content that customers will pay for? What does that content look like?

Paid content needs to drive results. Results-driven content, also called active content, is effective for acquiring leads and customers. It provides specific instruction so the reader can take action on the material. Instead of merely informing the reader, you are providing a tool for them to use to solve a real problem or fulfill an important need.

It’s your job to figure out what those unmet needs are so you can create content that offers a solution. Or, if their needs are already met, you need to find a way to meet your customers’ needs better than any of your competitors.

It makes sense that more niche, targeted publishers have had more success with paywalls. Take a look at this data which comes from a proprietary research study conducted by my team.

Niche Publishers Using Paywalls Statistics 2017 | The Sterling Woods Group

It shows that the more specialized, niche publishers are more likely to have a successful paywall business in place. Big guys: this doesn’t mean you can’t succeed here; it just means you need to think more specifically about slices of your audience that can be targeted with a focused media product.

Activate Your Whales

This is where your whales come in. As we’ve discussed before, your whales are your top 10% of customers who provide you with up to 70% of your revenue. This audience is great for upselling, for word of mouth referrals, feedback — and for new product research.

Start with these questions to research who your whales are and how you can create content that will solve their problems and drive your bottom line.

  • Who are your Whales?
  • What problem do you solve for them?
  • Why is this problem meaningful to them?
  • Where and when are they experiencing this problem?
  • How do you solve this problem better than anyone else?

If you can’t answer these questions outright, then it’s important to step back and research a couple of different aspects of your business. Specifically, you need to explore your ABCD’s: audience, business partners, content, and the dynamics of your industry. (You can read all about that here.)

Choose What Content to Place Where

Once you’ve done your research, you simply need to look at your content assets and choose what to place in front of and behind a paywall. For niche publishers, our research shows that intermingling free and paid content across your website and email is the most effective way to monetize it.

First and foremost, you want viewers to click. Passive content, or content meant to educate and inform, is great to put in front of the paywall. It targets top-of-funnel readers and is great for boosting SEO. But as you start to capture and nurture leads, you want to activate your readers differently. Offering whitepapers and ebooks in exchange for email addresses is a great way to move people along your subscription model slowly.

Finally, when you’ve proven your value proposition, push your audience towards in-depth content behind a paywall. Problem-solving content, e-learning or online courses, and access to exclusive events should all live in a clearly-marked restricted area of your website to drive your revenue.

How Sterling Woods Can Help

The Sterling Woods Group teaches clients our five forces to methodically make more money online. The goal: make sure you lock in double-digit growth year after year using the power of digital media. Many companies have experienced over 50% growth using our system. Beyond the financial benefits, clients tell us that – for the first time in years – they feel truly focused.

We offer workshops, coaching, and keynote speeches. Sterling Woods is also an agency that launches new digital initiatives, so clients don’t have to add overhead. Our agency business model is unique in that most of our fees are based on performance.

About the Author

Rob Ristagno, Founder and CEO of Sterling Woods, previously served as a senior executive at several digital media and e-commerce businesses, including as COO of America’s Test Kitchen. He started his career as a consultant at McKinsey. Ristagno holds degrees from the Harvard Business School and Dartmouth College and has taught at both Harvard and Boston College.

Rob is the author of A Member is Worth a Thousand Visitors: A Proven Method for Making More Money Online, set to be published in 2018. He regularly speaks at key media conferences, including at Niche Media events, Specialized Information Publishers Association meetings, and the Business Information and Media Summit.