Embrace the Paywall Future – Because it’s Coming

For several years now we all have lived in luxury, enjoying free content on the Internet that’s paid for through ads and data mining, with no paywall to contend with. But, as many prominent media outlets have noted, things are beginning to change.

Back in the early days of the Internet (and in the print media era of old), we as consumers paid for the content we wanted to read and watch. With the advent of Adblock Plus – not to mention a reduction in advertising budgets – many news websites and online magazines are going back to subscription business models, unable to maintain profits with optional “premium” services and banner ads alone.

What does this mean for those of us in media relations? It means we’re going to have to set expectations for our clients, educating them on the state of the media. Because like it or not, it does seem more paywalls are popping up, which means public relations and marketing plans have no choice but to adapt.

On its face, things may appear dire – it’s hard to share content on social media and on a personal blog when a link appears behind a paywall. But, there are some positive takeaways to the coming “subscription era” of Internet journalism that could mean more meaningful placements, better quality leads, and superior content than what we’re getting now in the “free and open” era of Internet publication.

Subscribers Read – and Readers are Your Target Audience

I’m a bit of a hipster. So, I still subscribe to a few print magazines. Since I don’t like my money to go to waste, I actually read those magazines, sometimes even cover-to-cover. I also subscribe to a couple newspapers online, and I check them every day, reading the content that’s relevant to me and subscribing directly to the RSS feeds of columns and writers I like the most.

The takeaway here is this: Those who pay for content are more likely to actually read it. Studies have shown most people don’t read the content on their social media feed, often sharing links without even clicking on them. I’ll argue that this is a product of the free content era, wherein the overabundance of choice has rendered us all lost in a sea of noise. While it may be nice to get a social media share or a link click, ultimately what does that really mean in terms of educating the public on your business, thought leaders, and relevant news?

If you ask me, the answer might be “not much.” Too often our metrics for success are superficial, measured in total number of social media shares, clicks, and engagements, even if those engagements are largely the result of bots and humans users who act like bots. But, if someone subscribes to a publication, they are more likely to actually do some reading, because they have a financial stake in supporting that content. That means more meaningful social media shares and readers who actually do – you guessed it – some reading. This translates to real discussion and genuine interest, not just some generic comment and a quick share that’s aimed at strictly producing numbers.

If someone subscribes to an online (or print) magazine, that means they are genuinely interested in the topic. Ideally, when it comes to a media interview or byline that you want read, your target audience is interested. The subscription era means more quality readers, even if the quantity of superficial shares and clicks is reduced.

Building Meaningful Relationships

It’s an unspoken truth of media relations – backs need to be scratched, and sometimes your thoughtful expert source means less than the source from a company who bought an ad. It’s not fair and, quite frankly, it reduces the quality of the content journalists produce, but that’s the reality of for-profit media. Ads are how publications stay in business, at least for now.

As advertising budgets begin to dry up across the board, the “pay-for-play” approach to journalism is harder to navigate for companies looking to get coverage, particularly for smaller startups who are still working to expand and turn a profit.

A positive outcome to a subscription business model means ads will no longer determine who gets an interview, since the primary source of revenue would ideally be subscriptions. Further, “sponsored content” will no longer be a path to regular byline publication. Like in the days of old, sources will be judged based more on merits, and journalists will begin, once again, to seek the stories that are most interesting to them and their readers.

Much as how the subscription model means an increase in quality readers, the same holds true for the content journalists produce. For those in media relations, that means we can build meaningful relationships with journalists for the mutual benefit of providing sources, who in turn get their name and message into stories that are far more genuine than those produced under the guise of advertising.

While free content will likely persist long into the future, the trend seems to be that the best publications are going to put themselves behind a paywall before too long. This will bring challenges, particularly when it comes to sharing content on company blogs and in social media feeds. In time, content producers and social media users will undoubtedly adapt to these changes and find workarounds, since sharing is the key to more exposure. I think this problem will ultimately solve itself, though admittedly things won’t be as straightforward as they are presently.

Sure, it may seem strange now to imagine an Internet where all content isn’t free, but it’s coming. And there are positive aspects to this transformation that could benefit everyone involved in the media placement chain, from thought leaders to journalists and those of us in between.  One thing is for certain, it’s best to embrace this future instead of combatting it – because those who are prepared will be best equipped to navigate the changing landscape and find success. One thing is for certain: Subscription models do not signal the end of journalism, which means media relations will continue to play an important role in earning placements.

Chad Michael Van Alstin
Chad has a varied background in journalism, content marketing, public relations, and multimedia production. He has worked professionally in communications since 2007, filling various roles at television and radio stations while studying media communication. Before joining Amendola, Chad served as a writer/editor for a variety of newspapers, magazines, and web publications.

He got his start in healthcare IT as the features editor for Health Management Technology, a magazine that covers healthcare technology and policy. While there, he wrote on the topics of population health, data security and privacy, and patient engagement.
Before becoming a marketing professional, Chad worked voluntarily to promote various social advocacy groups, political campaigns, and student organizations. The roles he filled included outreach, event planning, and live interviews of prominent politicians.
He was the previous editor for Fit 941, a Tampa Bay sports and fitness magazine, where he wrote on health, wellness, and covered local athletic competitions.
Earlier in his career, Chad penned a regular opinion column in the Virginia Tech newspaper, The Collegiate Times. He won an award from the Virginia Press Association for his work.
Outside of work, Chad keeps his skills sharp with creative writing, photography, and media-production-centric hobbies. He holds a B.A. in Mass Communication from Virginia Tech and an A.A. in Media Communication.
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