Where Should I Put My Paywall?

Trying to figure out what paywall strategy works best for your magazine? Expert Rob Ristagno shares his insights.

When publishers start charging for digital memberships, there is often an initial fear that traffic will plummet. Where you actually put the paywall barrier is an extremely important strategic decision. Leadership needs to balance various business objectives: advertising, affiliate marketing, lead acquisition, and of course direct monetization through membership subscription fees.  

The Paywall Options

Here is a menu of options to choose from:

  1. Metered Paywall. This model allows readers to consume a few articles before hitting the barrier. Example: New York Times
  2. First Part of a Digital Series Free. Example: DataCamp gives away their introductory course on data science for free, with the hopes that you go on to take more advanced courses that require a paid membership
  3. Date-driven Paywalls. New content is free, but archives require a membership (or the other way around). Example: The Editorial’s new content is free for 60 days, then it goes behind a paywall.
  4. Content-type Paywalls. The nature and/or format of the content dictates if it is free or paid. Example: Subscription Insider puts news in front of the paywall, but you must subscribe to access how-to guides and case studies.
  5. Ad-supported versus ad-free. Consumers pay to remove the ads. Example: Wired.

How Do You Decide Where the Paywall Goes?

There is no universal rule of thumb. The right model depends on your content, audience, and value proposition.

Here is a five-step process to help determine the right paywall strategy for you:

  1. Group your content into various categories. Can you sort by: media type (video, text-only, etc.), content area (news, how-to, research, benchmarks, etc.), word count range, date, subject matter, etc.?
  2. Monitor your customer behavior. How are they interacting with each type of content? What types of content drive traffic? (this should probably stay free) What types of content drive the most engagement? (this is a good candidate for paid, premium content)
  3. Develop a couple options and test with consumer surveys (interviews and polls)
  4. Run A/B split tests to quantitatively measure impact of two to three leading options
  5. Continue to test to refine the specifics (e.g., number of free articles, what time span divides “old” vs. “new,” etc.)

One Paywall Maxim

No matter which model you select, make sure you follow one hard and fast rule: your paywall logic must make sense to the customer. If it’s confusing or overly complicated, then your conversion, engagement, and traffic will suffer.

What other paywall business models have you tried? Please post in the comments below.



Rob RistagnoBW is the CEO and Founder of The Sterling Woods Group, a firm that builds new revenue streams for media companies and publishers. He is an expert in direct monetization of content. Prior to creating The Sterling Woods Group, Rob served as a senior executive for several niche media and e-commerce companies. He most recently was the Chief Operating Officer of America’s Test Kitchen, considered to be the gold standard in the niche media world for building diversified – and often digital – revenue streams.


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