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Publishers: Paywalls Need to Die. There’s a Better Way to Monetize

Paywalls have become commonplace in digital publishing, but they’re ineffective and create a barrier to the free press. Instead, publishers must use advertising to monetize new channels and give consumers the content they crave for free.

Back in the 90s, when publishers began moving their content online, there emerged a range of strategies: only the major headlines for some, whole editions for others. As they built a web presence, an entirely new genre of digital-only or digital-first publications arose, forcing everyone to go all-in on digital in order to compete. Now, even for the stalwarts of the industry, print editions have become almost second fiddle to their full-scale digital presence.

But even as digital publishing has evolved over the last 30 years, one thing remains a vexing challenge—monetization. Publishers have tried a variety of methods, but one has consistently proven to be universally ineffective: paywalls.

Today, publishers who insist on charging for content completely misunderstand how media consumption has changed around the world. Now, with so many options, including streaming video which some find to be much more compelling, the entire media model has changed. Most people get their media from a wide range of sources, but they only pay for one or two. And if you’re not at the top of the list, you don’t get paid. It’s not a matter of whether your content is worthy or interesting or relevant. It’s a share of wallet problem. There just isn’t enough to go around.

In fact, data confirms people don’t want to pay for content.

A whopping 75% of Gen Z and Millennials already say they don’t pay for digital content—they get it from free sources or not at all. If you’re a publisher with a paywall, that should be frightening news.  

2021 Digital Publishing Consumer Survey

In fact, one could argue paywalls are a literal barrier to the freedom of press we all hold so dear in this country. By forcing consumers to pay for content, it prohibits those who can’t or won’t pay from accessing news and information. And this negatively affects the entire media value chain—publishers, journalists, advertisers and the public.

What if, in our digital media evolution, we didn’t have to come up with something new, like paywalls, after all? What if our local TV news stations had it right all along? Just run some ads to support the creation and distribution of content.

You might think that sounds over simplistic. That you can’t support a digital publication with just banner or native ads online. That social and search are sucking up so much available ad spend, there’s not enough left for independent publishers.

So, what’s the better alternative? Monetizing engagement channels you control, like email, push notifications and other forms of direct messaging. By offering non-paid email and push subscriptions, and monetizing those with brand advertising within, publishers can keep their audience engaged while also driving new revenue.

The good news is data shows consumers are open to this kind of monetization.

Nearly 3 out of 4 say they’d rather see ads and get the content for free. And for publishers concerned their subscribers will be offended by ads in email or push, the data shows just the opposite: nearly 2/3 say they’re not bothered at all or don’t even notice the ads.

2021 Digital Publishing Consumer Survey

Even better, the majority of digital consumers say they engage with ads on publishers’ websites. Some 65% of Gen Z and 75% of Millennials say they’ll click on the ads in email newsletters if they trust the sender, and 53% of Gen Z and 60% of Millennials are open to ads in push notifications—as long as they’re personalized.

For publishers looking to expand their monetization and grow revenue, building 1:1 relationships and delivering personalized content over the channels they control is a much better investment—and more effective—than a paywall.

Consumers want to receive your content. And they’re willing to pay the price in the form of seeing ads in order to get it for free. By implementing a robust monetization strategy using mediums like email newsletters and push notifications, you can give them what they want without any unnecessary barriers to get in the way.

Download the 2021 Digital Publishing Consumer Survey

Jeff Kupietzky

Jeff serves as CEO of Jeeng, an innovative technology company helping companies monetize their email newsletters through dynamic content. A frequent speaker at Digital Media conferences, he has also been featured on CNN, CNBC, and in many news and business magazines. Jeff earned an MBA with high distinction from Harvard Business School and graduated Summa Cum Laude with B.A. in Economics from Columbia University.

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