What happens when you put up a paywall? (a magazine mini case study)

A steep drop in Google visitor traffic. What not to do.

The Times of London recently reversed themselves. They removed some of the paywall that they had put up which charges subscribers to read their news. The Times decided to offer some teaser text free of charge with their articles. All their articles were previously blocked for 2 years.

So why did they do this?

The Times, like most publishers, needs to attract new readers by having their articles found in Google search. They are now trying to do this by offering a couple of snippets of text to attract Google. Will it work? My opinion is yes but it’s not enough. It will help show some of their articles in Google search but keep in mind each article snippet is competing with free full articles from other publishers which will rank better in search (especially in the general news arena where multiple publishers are writing about the same topics).

Let’s flip this… and get to the point of this article.What would happen if you were publishing free content and then decided to put up a paywall that required readers to subscribe?

I’ll tell you. We have a magazine client, a niche magazine with national reach that did this. One month all their articles were free, showing up in Google search, and the next month they put up up a paywall that required a subscription to access the articles. And by the way they did retain the teaser text snippets on the site.

What happened is it essentially killed off most the search traffic that was coming in from Google. Here are the numbers (enlarge the visitors chart above for a shocking visual): With the free version of the magazine, total monthly visits were over 5000 visitors per month. A little over 3000 of those visitors were coming from Google search.

After they went and put up the paywall in May/June and became a purely paid magazine, Google throttled down the articles found in search and in a few months only a little more than 500 visitors we coming from search. That’s a 2500 visitor per month drop. Ouch.

50% of their website traffic simply went away after putting up a paywall

The lesson here is that as a publisher you have to consider Google as a potentially large driver of visitor traffic. The Times seems to have learned this lesson, that you just can’t shut down Google search traffic.

So what should you do?

Today you can monetize or make money many different ways online. My suggestion is to offer as many free articles as you can stand. This will drive in Google visitor traffic and let readers share your articles via Facebook, Twitter and their blogs. Keep in mind as a magazine publisher you serve a niche and your future readers are searching in Google for information that you provide. That’s called targeted traffic and you want as many readers as you get your hands on right?

Specific things you can do:

Mix free and paid articles or issues to tease readers into subscribing, so that some of your content is free and some of it is paid. This will draw in Google search traffic and if your readers like what they see they will want more. Offer a free email subscription option to grow your list.

Perhaps you have a strong community that wants to connect with you and others with the same niche interests. You could set up moderated forums and create other benefits for them. Charge them a monthly membership fee.

Repurpose your articles into e-books, audio CDs, DVDs, and charge for them. If you have an educational approach put together a how-to course and charge for it. The same goes for providing online content to help sell a print edition.

The simple formula is this: The more articles and content you give away for free, the larger a community you will attract. So think creatively about how you can use your free content to build your community and, in turn, sell your audience related paid products.

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