How technology made The Buffalo News paywall a really smart and effective platform

In the lead up to the Local Media Association’s Media Transformation Conference in September, we’ll be featuring some of the biggest names and most relevant sessions.

Digital subscriptions will be a big focus in one of the three workshops at the conference. We spoke with one of the headliners for one one those workshops about what’s working at their company with subscriptions.

David Adkins, Vice President of Technology, The Buffalo News

Tell us about the new technology that your company developed for digital subscriptions that is IP address vs. cookies based?

The new technology that we developed added four primary functions for us. First, we switched from a cookie based to an ip address based paywall. Second, we developed a reporting tool that helps to put real-time metrics in the hands of our executive team to help identify what we should set our paywall meter at and allowed us to marry that information up to programmatic advertising and subscriber revenue to help us understand how many subscriptions we needed from a paywall setting to offset the loss of programmatic revenue and page view traffic.Third, we developed the paywall to support many options that allows us to A/B test various scenarios from targeting different types of content and different types of users with different meter settings. Lastly, the new paywall allowed us to “plug” and better control the “leakiness” of our paywall.

We understand the technology helped you figure out how many people were going around the paywall. Were the results surprising? 

The results were very surprising. What we found was that tens of thousands of our users were bypassing our traditional paywall.  It was so easy to bypass that even the majority of our subscribers wouldn’t bother logging in to read stories because that was more effort than doing the bypass methods.

Tell us about the analysis you do on how the paywall effects advertising revenue?

Our system has what we call the “What-If” report that estimates the loss of programmatic revenue (locally sold revenue is guaranteed inventory so we don’t factor that in) and the page view losses associated with each potential paywall meter setting. It also helps estimate the number of digital subscriptions needed to offset the potential revenue losses.

Right now your paywall is set at 10 articles per week, how did you come up with that strategy?

The “What-If” report that I just mentioned showed that based on that paywall meter setting we would need about 225 digital subscriptions to offset our revenue losses and have a positive net revenue. We put that setting in place and we received more than 225 digital subscriptions in the first week.  Currently we are doing testing with subsets of users that we’ve identified as “likely to subscribe” to give them a different meter, different messaging, and special offers to see what works the best. 

What methods are most effective at converting digital subscribers?

I don’t believe that there is a single silver bullet to converting a digital subscriber. We have several methods that we are using and all seem to have some effect, here are a few examples of some things we are doing:

  • Simplification of our subscribe process online to remove the barrier to entry and make it easier for someone to subscribe.  We have improved our conversion ratio by 40% since doing the simplification.
  • Offer a “free trial” for both print and digital to any “new” subscriber.  We have found that 85% of users that take the free trial convert into a paying subscriber for at least 1 month following the trial. 
  • Customized newsletters as a way to entice users to subscribe.  We are finding increased engagement with curated daily newsletters over auto-generated email newsletters.
  • Business Intelligence/Propensity Modeling.  We are testing segments of our users that we have targeted as “likely to subscribe” based on a variety of factors.  We are in the process of A/B testing a subset of those users with customized paywall metering, customized special offers, and alternative paywall messaging.  I hope to have more results on this to share at the conference as we are currently in the middle of testing.

Are you willing to make your software available to others in the industry?

Yes!  We built this software with the idea that we wanted to make it available to others in the industry as a SaaS (Software-as-a-Service) product. The technology is very different from what’s currently on the market and it’s been so successful for us and we’d love it if our software can help other publishers. I’d be happy to speak to anyone interested in more information.

Register for the Media Transformation Conference right here.