As subscriptions play a more integral role in their businesses, publishers are increasingly questioning if they’re doing enough to secure their content against paywall circumvention.
It’s no secret that media companies have found converting new subscribers more challenging in recent quarters, partly because of difficult economic conditions and partly because they’ve already converted their most engaged (and therefore easiest to convert) readers. But as general consumers become more familiar with paywalls, a niggling concern for publishers is that they’re also becoming increasingly adept at avoiding them. That’s driving some to revisit and reevaluate their approaches to protecting subscriber-only content.
A recent study we conducted in partnership with National Research Group found that over half of consumers now attempt to get around publishers’ paywalls without paying, and the behavior appears to be growing. Paywall circumvention is also more prevalent among younger audiences, on which some publishers are pinning their growth expectations. Sixty-three percent of 18-25-year-olds attempt to access publishers’ content without paying, and 58 percent of 26-41-year-olds.
For most publishers, their responses to paywall circumvention to date have fallen into three broad categories:
- Make the case that circumvention benefits them by promoting sampling and exposing their content to wider audiences.
- Write paywall dodgers off as “never-subscribers” who aren’t worth spending time and attention on anyway.
- Turn a blind eye.
In lieu of a robust solution to a difficult problem, these approaches have largely been encouraged by paywall technology providers and by technology and product teams within media companies. “We allow it because we want to promote sampling,” is a common refrain from executives who say they’ve used circumvention to their tactical advantage. (Password sharing presents a similar but different challenge for publishers, meanwhile.)
But the reality is few publishers have an accurate read on what portion of their audiences might be accessing their content without paying for the privilege, let alone a nuanced understanding of the impact it may have on their businesses. They may assume it’s a small minority, but most lack meaningful data to support that assertion.
As subscription products and revenues become a more meaningful part of their businesses, publishers – and subscription media services more widely – will increasingly look to gain tighter control over how, when and why audiences are able to gain access to premium content – even if they’re allowed to do so without paying. That will include attempting to protect content against circumvention, but also addressing password sharing and other vulnerabilities that could result in lost revenue or otherwise hinder their businesses. (See: Netflix’s imminent crackdown on password sharing.)
While paywall vulnerabilities may indeed help with the discovery and sampling of subscriber-only content, publishers will inevitably strive to take a more active and strategic role in the sampling process versus turning a blind eye and hoping circumvention will play into their hands long-term. And while writing paywall dodgers off as “never-subscribers” is a simple solution to the problem, it may not be an effective long-term strategy for publishers looking to build sustainable subscription businesses.
No easy answers
Addressing paywall vulnerabilities isn’t easy, particularly as implementations and conversion approaches become more sophisticated. As with many aspects of digital media, publishers operating paywalls must attempt to strike a delicate balance between discovery, distribution, audience engagement and their monetization needs.
Relatively few publishers operate paywalls where content is locked away from public access entirely, for example, and most make subscriber-only content available to search engines, which typically makes it susceptible to some level of piracy. Meanwhile, publishers are increasingly experimenting with dynamic paywalls that can prove easier for audiences to circumnavigate than more “static” approaches.
Some publishers are playing a game of whack-a-mole that involves monitoring weak spots in their paywall implementations and plugging gaps as and when abuses arise or become prevalent enough to address, but many lack the resources or technical capabilities to address potential weaknesses themselves and are beholden to the solutions, approaches and guidance offered by subscription technology providers.
A lack of simple solutions can make content security and paywall circumvention thorny issues for publishers to discuss and evaluate internally. But for publishers looking to grow their subscriber bases and subscription revenues long-term, questions around content protection and paywall circumvention will escalate from niggling inconveniences to more meaningful priorities.