- 53% of consumers say they try to get around digital publishers’ paywalls without paying.
- 69% say they avoid clicking links to websites they know use paywalls or registration walls.
- 53% say they leave websites asking them to volunteer their email address or other information to access content.
- 70% of subscribers say they’ve taken free trials to digital publications with no intention of paying when the trials expire.
As publishers place more digital content behind paywalls, over half of consumers are looking for ways to access it without paying or are simply avoiding those publishers’ sites entirely.
Fifty-three percent of U.S. consumers say 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 and National Research Group.
Among consumers who already pay for at least one digital subscription, 66 percent reported attempting to circumvent paywalls. This may indicate existing subscribers tend to be more digitally savvy, familiar with the concept of paywalls generally, or simply perceive paywalled content as more valuable.
The threat that paywall circumvention poses to publishers’ businesses is obvious, particularly as subscription products and revenues become a more central part of many publishers’ models. Widespread circumvention can result in lost revenue for publishers, but it also impacts their ability to collect valuable first-party data and to accurately understand audience behaviors and interests. (Password sharing presents a similar but different challenge for publishers, meanwhile.)
A growing behavior
Paywall circumvention is not a new phenomenon, but as consumers encounter subscriber-only content more frequently and become increasingly technologically adept, interest in it is growing.
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.
The most common methods employed by consumers as they attempt to get around paywalls include using paywall evasion apps and browser extensions, deleting cookies and browsing histories, hopping between multiple devices, and searching for the same content on different websites, our research found.
For publishers, striking a balance between content security, distribution, discoverability and conversion optimization isn’t easy. The sweet spot between attracting and engaging new readers and locking content to convert those readers into paying subscribers is difficult to find and maintain.
The data highlight a few key questions and considerations:
Should publishers do more to protect their content?
Growing consumer interest in bypassing paywalls raises the question of whether publishers should attempt to lock their digital content more securely.
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 new abuses arise or become prevalent enough to address. Others lack the resources or technical capabilities to address potential weaknesses themselves and are beholden to the solutions, approaches and guidance offered by third-party subscription technology providers.
Addressing vulnerabilities isn’t easy, however, particularly as paywall implementations and conversion approaches become more sophisticated. Relatively few publishers operate paywalls where content is locked away from public access entirely, for example. Most make subscriber-only content available to search engines which often 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.
With interest in paywall circumvention on the rise, publishers might also reevaluate how their paywall technology is implemented, including whether “server-side” paywall approaches could be preferable to “client-side” ones.
Will paywall dodgers ever subscribe anyway?
Some publishers and industry observers take the view that anyone who goes to the effort to pirate content is unlikely to pay for it anyway, or that circumvention actually benefits publishers by exposing their content to wider audiences.
Others argue that this perspective is short-sighted given that – for most publishers – repeated paywall hits remain the primary driver of subscription conversions. For many publishers, driving awareness and demand for subscription products takes months, if not years, and those turning a blind eye to paywall circumvention could be losing out on opportunities to nurture new subscriber relationships.
Writing paywall dodgers off as “never-subscribers” is a simple solution to the problem – and perhaps a convenient one in lieu of an easy fix – but it may not be an effective long-term strategy for publishers looking to build sustainable subscription businesses. And while paywall vulnerabilities may inadvertently aid with the discovery and sampling of subscriber-only content, it stands to reason that publishers should strive to take a more active role in the process rather than turning a blind eye and hoping piracy will benefit them long-term.
Are paywalls limiting publishers’ ability to reach new audiences and readers?
A major consideration for any publisher locking content behind a paywall is how it impacts their ability to reach and engage new audiences and readers. The data suggest that a portion of consumers are being “trained” to avoid publisher sites that lock content, with 69 percent of survey respondents reporting that they avoid clicking links to websites they know use paywalls or registration walls. (It remains unclear how that reported behavior might be impacting traffic to publishers’ sites in practice.)
Consumer awareness of subscription-oriented publishers might ultimately aid their subscription efforts, however. For those attempting to communicate to audiences that their content is worth paying to access, a dropoff in topline traffic is inevitable and should be expected. Placing content behind paywalls comes with unavoidable tradeoffs.
For these reasons, publishers have increasingly gravitated toward “freemium” subscription models in recent years, which attempt to strike a balance between discovery and monetization by reserving portions of content for paying subscribers and making the remainder more freely available. For some publishers, freemium approaches offer a more effective approach for balancing discovery and monetization than simply taxing their most loyal and engaged audiences with meters.
Are paywalls stifling other revenue streams by limiting traffic?
Building on the discovery point, locking content can result in dips in topline traffic as audiences avoid sites they don’t subscribe to and, for practical reasons, are able to consume less of their content.
For publishers operating advertising businesses or generating revenue through other non-subscription channels, the balance between driving audience engagement and subscriber conversions requires constant optimization, as is dependent on their individual strategies and business needs.
Consumer attitudes toward paywalls and registration walls
Consumers surveyed for our study also said the use of paywalls and registration walls influences their perception of publishers’ sites.
Sixty-six percent of respondents said that encountering locked content makes them dislike the website or publication in question, and 53 percent of respondents said they would leave a website if they were asked to share their email address to unlock content even if payment was not required to continue reading.
Seventy percent of respondents who pay for one or more subscriptions said they have on at least one occasion taken out a free subscription trial with no intention of paying when the trial expires.
Publishers implementing paywalls and registration walls across their sites must make peace with the fact that they may alienate portions of their traffic. Converting readers into paying subscribers inevitably means turning some readers and portions of “driveby” traffic away unsatisfied.
What’s next: A focus on content security
As publishers’ subscription businesses mature and paywall circumvention becomes increasingly prevalent among consumer audiences, we expect to see a growing emphasis on content security.
In pursuit of ongoing growth, publishers – and subscription media services more widely – will look to gain tighter control over their content and how, when and why audiences are able to gain access to it. That will include attempting to lock content more securely in order to limit paywall circumvention, password sharing, and other vulnerabilities that could result in lost subscription revenue or otherwise hamper their businesses.
As converting new subscribers becomes more challenging and competition for consumer dollars gets more fierce, turning a blind eye to paywall circumvention and simply writing paywall dodgers off as “never-subscribers” will not be seen by many publishers as a viable long-term approach.
Research was conducted by Toolkits and National Research Group, a global research and insights firm that works with the world’s largest content creators and marketers. The study surveyed 2,509 U.S. consumers aged 18-64 and was conducted in August 2022. Participants were selected to be nationally representative (based on most recent US census data) in terms of age, gender, ethnicity, and income.