What is a paywall? How does it help monetize content?

What is a paywall?

How to gate/restrict content using a paywall might be the most important decision a content creator can make. Finding that perfect balance between creating content for free and monetizing can be tricky. You want people to find your content, but you also need to build a sustainable business. Let’s explore the ins and outs of gating content and answer a few essential questions, such as, what is a paywall?

What is a paywall?

A paywall is a system used by websites or online publications to restrict access to their content. Only users who have paid a subscription fee or have a paid membership are able to view the content behind the paywall. Paywalls are typically used by news websites, online magazines, and other online publications that produce high-quality content that is costly to produce. The goal of a paywall is to generate revenue for the website or publication by charging users for access to the content.

Think of a paywall as a gate restricting access to content, much like a shared garden with a locked gate. For the people who own a key to unlock the gate, they can enter the garden whenever they wish, but for people without the key, they must stay behind the locked gate.

Just as a garden gate unlocks to let people access a garden, a content gate or paywall lets people access parts of your digital content (which is known as gated content or paywalled content). This content may be a podcast, newsletter, blog post, course or similar and the ‘key’ in this case is likely a special account or password that grants access to certain people. Gaining a ‘key’ might be achieved by becoming a subscriber to that podcast, or buying a course, or signing up to be a member of that blog.

Types of paywalls

There are several different types of paywalls. The most common type of paywall is the hard paywall, which completely blocks users from accessing any content until they pay for a membership or subscription. This type of paywall is typically used by newspapers and other publications that produce trusted, high-quality, in-depth analytical content.

Another type of paywall is the metered paywall, which allows users to view a certain number of articles or pages for free before they are required to pay for a subscription. This type of paywall is typically used by news websites and other publications that produce a large amount of content on a regular basis.

A soft paywall is third type of paywall, which allows users to view a limited amount of content without paying, but still require a subscription or membership to view all content. This type of paywall is typically used by online magazines and other publications that produce high-quality content but also want to allow some access to their content for free.

Why use a paywall?

There are two main reasons to gate content behind a paywall. Both are connected to progressing your business:

  • Putting content behind behind a paywall means that your audience will have to pay to view it - either by setting up a monthly/annual subscription or by making a one-time purchase such as a lifetime membership or donation. This payment will ‘open the gate’ and provide access your page, post or podcast. There are numerous software platforms out there that offer the ability to automate the connection between people and paid content.

  • Gating content allows you to obtain information from your visitors, to develop a deeper understanding of them and foster stronger relationships. You can use this info to better understand your audience by building an email database or customizing the experience of your website. For example, you could ask for a member’s preferred language and prioritize showing them content in that language. Of course, you’ll need to make it clear that you’re asking for their data with the intention of contacting them as per GDPR.

Why not use a paywall?

As with all decisions, there are pros and cons to gating content. ‘Hiding’ content behind a paywall means that it is hidden from Google’s crawling algorithms. If not strategic, this could significantly impact your Search Engine Optimization (SEO) efforts, which is an important way for people to find you. This is why it’s not recommended to gate/restrict all your content.

Also, in order for people to open their wallets, they need to trust you and that trust is built by someone engaging with your content. Be generous and share some of your favorite and (popular) content publicly and for free; this will help to gain readers’ trust.

When should you use a paywall?

There needs to be a balance between what to give away for free and what to put behind the paywall. Finding this balance is just about the hardest and most important thing for any creative wanting to monetize their content.

Our customers and potential customers often ask us - as well as the initial question "What is a paywall?" -- “How much content should I put behind the paywall?” but it’s better to consider which content should be gated rather than how much. In order to decide what content should be gated, you need to ask yourself a few critical questions:

What is your goal? When creating a post, article or podcast, think about the (primary) objective of that piece of content. Are you looking to increase your brand visibility, including establishing yourself as a thought leader in your industry? Are you looking to monetize / earn money from the content? Are you trying to build your database (often known as ‘generating leads’)? Answering these questions will help you know what content to gate/restrict.

Who is your competition? There’s not much point asking people to pay for something if they can get it for free elsewhere! When researching your next post, find out if any content in a similar industry or topic is easily and freely available. There’s nothing wrong with creating more content on the same theme but, as always, you need to make sure your audience is gaining something from you that others are not providing - this might include a first-hand experience, or an unique insight that nobody else can offer.

Are you adding enough value? If your content isn’t adding value to the audience, it shouldn’t be gated. You need to offer information that isn’t found elsewhere or it needs to be in a format that offers high ‘production value’. For example, longer content such as in-depth analyses and ebooks or downloads are suited to gated/paywalled content, while shorter content such as blogs of up to 1000 words are usually better as ungated/free content.

Where to build the gate

There’s one extra thing to consider when gating content and that’s how much of each individual piece should be gated. Go back to the garden gate analogy: if you want people to visit a special area of your garden (perhaps a building within the garden), it’s better to let them visit a small part of the garden first, get them interested, then show them the secret area that they need the key for.

You can then ‘upsell’ a metaphorical ticket to the private area. In this case, you would build the ‘gate’ after guests have experienced some of the public garden, not right at the entrance to your land.

In the world of digital content, the equivalent is to let a visitor read a few paragraphs of your content before the gate/paywall becomes activated. This way the reader is already engaged in the story and more likely to share their personal information or buy a subscription in order to read on.

How to gate content behind a paywall

Of course, we at Memberful offer a super-simple way to gate content, via a WordPress plugin. You’ll find more information in our help docs.

There are several other platforms that can help you ‘build the gate’. Instead of giving you an exhaustive list, we’ll stick to what we know best: gating content on WordPress. Here are just a few well-established WordPress plugins that will help you gate your content:

If you’d like to know more, feel free to get in touch. Click the red button to start chatting with our team today!

Conclusion: What is a paywall?

Overall, paywalls are an effective way for online publications to generate revenue and support the production of high-quality content. However, they can also be a source of frustration for users who are unable to access the content they want without paying. Paywalls are a delicate balancing act, as it's important to have a balance between generating revenue and providing access to valuable content.

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