Paywall strategy: Don't try to be the New York Times

Paywall strategy

You're probably familiar with paywalls. Major newspapers like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal have successfully transitioned to a paywall model over the past few years. More and more newspapers around the world are adopting paywalls every day.

What does this mean to you as a small publisher? Should you look to the big newspapers for guidance?

The small publisher advantage

Newspapers report on current or local events and culture. They have a very wide and diverse audience with a shared interest in these topics. The newspaper aims to be the best at reporting around those topics. One of the easiest ways to monetize that "best in class reporting" is with a big paywall. This monetization strategy fits the newspaper's audience. It trades value for value in a broad and sweeping fashion, without much focus on individual needs or interests.

As a small publisher or blogger, you have an advantage. Your community is more focused. By definition, you almost certainly operate in a niche. This gives you special insight into your audience. For example, if you're John Gruber at Daring Fireball, you know your audience follows technology and Apple products. If you're Tim Grahl at Out:think, you know your audience wants to learn how to market their books. If you're John and Dana at Minimalist Baker, you know your audience likes cooking simple healthy meals.

Build a profile

So, how do you take advantage of this knowledge? The first step is putting together a basic profile of your audience. For example, let's think about the Minimalist Baker example we just mentioned. Some things the average reader might do or care about:

  • Ingredients in their food.
  • Cooks meals from scratch.
  • Special diet needs (gluten-free / vegan).

Start brainstorming around these concepts. Try to figure out how your readers see themselves, where they shop, and what they like to do for fun. Once you've made some educated guesses, send out or post a short survey to get confirmation. This will start to sharpen the picture and you'll get a more complete understanding of your audience.

Compile an idea list

Now you can start to ask yourself some different questions. What would this hypothetical person be interested in paying for? Where can we add value? Some ideas from this example:

  • An iPad app for storing and organizing their recipes.
  • A list of restaurants in their city that focus on simple ingredients and special diet needs.
  • A weekly members only online cooking class.
  • A cookbook focusing on simple meals.

Compile a list of your best ideas and start evaluating how you would execute on them. While thinking through ideas, think about how you can test the market. For example, if you feel strongly about selling a physical cookbook, ask your audience to sign up an advanced copy, or maybe even run a Kickstarter campaign to validate the idea and pay for the costs up front. Once you hit on something that your audience is excited about, you can dive into your execution phase.

A more strategic paywall

As a small publisher, your first responsibility is to keep your core content free. It attracted your current audience, and it will continue to bring new readers to your site. Setting up a hard paywall will make it harder to grow, and it could scare away a portion of your existing audience. It's best to leave the big paywalls for the big publishers with the big undifferentiated audiences.

This doesn't mean you can't set up a paywall. It means you need to use your size to your advantage and be more nimble and strategic about how you do it. A paywall done right can be a fantastic source of recurring revenue. You've already got the blueprint, because you publish in a niche and you know your audience. You just need to do the work and come up with a good idea list to execute on.

Maybe it's a members only podcast. Maybe it's a video series. Maybe it's a discussion forum. Maybe it's just hiding ads for paying members. Like we've said before, you should try to come up with something that will deliver ongoing value to your audience, so you can charge accordingly for it. Once you find that mix, you can build a more strategic paywall around that idea while leaving your existing content in place.