Why Paywalls Don’t Work

I don’t have a problem with paying for quality content and I believe, a large number internet users don’t either. If millions of people used to pay to have their newspapers delivered, why shouldn’t that work in the internet age?

Especially in the last few years, with adblocker user base steadily increasing, online newspapers would try to fight back by setting up paywalls.

The general consensus is that people are just less willing to pay for things online. But online shopping is booming, so which is it? Is it because we’re talking about digital, intangible goods? Then why are people spending billions of dollars on coins for their social farming games? Other theories state that it’s a barrier between them and the user or an overabuncance of competitors and free offerings.

So even though publishers want to push for this model, they have to admit that it doesn’t work and take it down whenever they realize that someone actually wants to read their content.

Here’s my thesis about why paywalls really don’t work: user experience.

Arguably, a lot of web paywalls do the same thing as “freemium” mobile games: get you hooked with some free content and then humbly (or agressively) invite (or annoy) you into paying for more. So why is one successful but the other isn’t?

The difference is that closed platforms like iOS or Google Play make it incredibly easy to buy content right from the Apps. A lot of people play mobile games and this is where they get their games from. Every purchase is just a fingerprint (or FaceID) away.

But the preferred medium for people to read their news articles is the World Wide Web which is accessed through browsers. Unlike integrated platforms, the web is more open. This means, the user experience of a typical paywall looks like this:

I can stop here. You get the idea.

The problem is that people don’t do that because doing all this takes longer than reading the article they want to read! We have all this technology with smartphones that can do 500 billion math operations per second and cellular transfer speeds of 100-entire-newspaper-contents per second. And then, they think that it’s appropriate to offer a service that takes even marginally longer than going to a newspaper stand, dropping $2.50 and picking up the printed edition?

The conversion rate between each of the steps above is marginal at best.

But stop. How else are we supposed to track our customers? How else are we supposed to process payments? These are the questions you will hear from publishers when you tell them about the ridiculousness of their paywall processes.

As usual, the most important rule of user experience got completely ignored: when something sucks, it doesn’t matter why it sucks and users don’t care.

Another argument is that, once registered, you can use your account or subscription to buy and read more content. But that’s a fallacy of the publishers that stems from the assumption that customers will only use their product and nothing else. A good product works well within the ecosystem users live in. A Facebook user might encounter dozens of publications on their timeline every day. If they would sign up for the paywall-doors for each one of them, they would have to maintain hundreds of subscriptions, stay informed about a dozens of terms-of-service chances every month and keep track of hundreds of payments. Obviously, this idea is absurd.

As always, there will be a solution. For the Music industry, that solution was iTunes. Apple is busy doing the same for publishing again and it’s just a matter of time until Apple Pay and Apple News are used to create the iTunes for news articles.

This will happen, unless publishers to find a standardized micropayment processing service. It needs to be universal and accessible from any browser. Purchases need to be tracked in a way that doesn’t allow sites to track users. All you get is a digital token that you own something and you use that token when you request the content, but nobody can tell who is requesting content. And it needs to be practically instantaneous. Whenever you want to buy something, you agree to do so with a single click.

On a side note:
spiegel.de. used to have a convenient paywall that was very easy to use because it operated through cookies. No registration required. The problem was that it was too easy to circumvent so it got replaced with a paywall as described above. The initial UX thinking was a step in the right direction and I'm sad they went thn dead-end way now.

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