As publishers move more of their content behind paywalls, audiences are increasingly looking for ways to access it without paying for the privilege. The trend presents a growing headache for any publisher operating subscription products, and for the third-party platforms and technology companies providing tools to power them.
Paywall circumvention is by no means a new phenomenon, but as consumers encounter subscriber-only content more frequently and become increasingly technologically savvy, interest in how to bypass paywalls is growing quickly. Search activity for terms such as “bypass paywall” has accelerated dramatically over the past 12 months to reach an all time high, according to Google Trends, and paywall circumvention methods are now passed around online more openly than ever.
Meanwhile, growing coverage in mainstream media around topics such as subscription price hikes, how to cancel recurring payments and the notion of “peak subscription” is further propelling consumer curiosity about how to access content and services for free.
Dealing with paywall circumvention presents a growing challenge for publishers and their technology teams. Identifying the practice and quantifying its prevalence accurately is near impossible, and meaningful benchmarking data is nonexistent. Nevertheless, the threat that widespread paywall circumvention poses to subscription businesses is clear, particularly as subscription revenue becomes a more central part of many publishers’ business models.
Paywall circumvention is also a key consideration for those publishers moving away from metered paywalls to focus instead on freemium models. As a growing number invest more time, effort and budget in premium, subscriber-only content, – and some begin to move away from advertising as a primary revenue stream – the impact of content piracy becomes far more pronounced.
As a result, some publishers are now closing down paywall workarounds more quickly and aggressively than ever, engaging in an escalating game of whack-a-mole that involves monitoring weaknesses in their paywall implementations and plugging gaps as and when new abuses arise or become prevalent enough to address.
Others are opting simply to turn a blind eye. Some take the (arguably short-sighted) view that anyone who goes to the effort to pirate content is unlikely to pay for it anyway. Others argue that it helps expose the value of their content to wider audiences, while many simply don’t have the resources or technical capabilities to address potential weaknesses themselves and rely on third-party providers to ensure the technologies and tools they pay for can provide ample security for their content.
Plugging gaps isn’t always simple, however, particularly as paywall implementations and tactics become more complicated.Relatively few publishers operate paywalls where content is locked away from public access entirely, for example. Rather, the majority make subscriber-only content available to search engines which inherently makes it more susceptible to piracy. Meanwhile, publishers are increasingly experimenting with dynamic paywalls that can prove easier for audiences to circumnavigate. The balance between content security, distribution, discoverability and conversion optimization isn’t an easy one to strike.
While quantifying the prevalence of paywall circumvention – and the revenue that publishers could be losing because of it – might be difficult, it’s becoming increasingly clear it’s no longer just a tech-savvy minority engaging in it. As more consumers hit more paywalls, it seems inevitable the practice will continue to proliferate, and content security will continue to become a more significant consideration for subscription publishers across the board.