Publishers are well aware that portions of their audiences bypass their paywalls and access content without paying for the privilege. Most have opted to turn a blind eye, arguing that it’s a fringe behavior or that it has no meaningful impact on their businesses.
But the reality is that few publishers have an accurate read on what portion of their audiences might be bypassing their paywalls, let alone a nuanced understanding of the impact it could have on their revenues. They may assume it’s a small minority, but most lack robust data to support that assumption.
Measuring paywall circumvention accurately remains technically challenging. Some circumvention tactics make identifying paywall-dodging users difficult, leaving publishers in the dark as to how frequently their content is actually being accessed by non-paying audiences. Publishers and technology providers readily admit that quantifying paywall circumvention accurately remains essentially impossible.
Nevertheless, publishers frequently say they believe the problem is a small one, and that paywall-dodging audiences are “minuscule” and/or “insignificant.” Arvid Tchivzhel, managing director at Mather Economics’ digital consulting practice, estimates around 4-5% of readers bypass publishers’ paywalls successfully, according to Digiday.
That might be accurate, but consumers themselves say they’re attempting to get around paywalls at a far more significant rate. Fifty-three percent of U.S. consumers said they attempt to bypass paywalls on publishers’ websites when they encounter them, and 69 percent say they avoid clicking links to websites they already know use paywalls or registration walls, according to a study of 2,509 U.S. consumers conducted by Toolkits last year. Among consumers who already pay for at least one digital subscription, 66 percent said they attempt to circumvent paywalls.
A growing problem
It’s no secret that publishers have found converting new subscribers more challenging in recent years, partly because of difficult economic conditions and partly because they’ve already converted their most engaged (and therefore easiest to convert) readers. But as consumers become more familiar with paywalls, a growing concern for publishers is that they’re also becoming increasingly adept at avoiding them.
Search activity for terms like “bypass paywall” has accelerated dramatically over the past few years according to Google Trends, and paywall circumvention methods are now passed around online more openly than ever. A search on any major search engine, social platform, or forum will surface dozens of recent articles, posts, and videos detailing the best and latest ways to circumvent paywalls – often for specific publishers’ sites.
Meanwhile, growing coverage in mainstream media about subscription price hikes and how to manage and cancel recurring payments is further propelling consumer curiosity about how they might access publishers’ digital content without paying.
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.
Stepping up content protection
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.