Four years ago, the product team at The Harvard Business Review faced a conundrum: they were planning a relaunch of HBR.org and wanted to find a better way to collect reader email addresses. The company only had about a half million emails stored in its database. This might seem like a lot, but it represented only a fraction of its overall traffic.
Why was building HBR’s email list such a priority? Publishers have consistently found that email subscribers are the most likely to convert into paying subscribers. The New York Times, for instance, found that its free newsletter subscribers were twice as likely to convert into paid subscribers than those readers who didn’t receive its emails, and The Seattle Times discovered that email subscribers were 25 times more likely to convert than users who came from Facebook.
So Eric Hellweg, who was then HBR’s managing director of product, started brainstorming with his team for how they could entice readers into registering for an account. “Looking around the media world at the time, the value proposition presented to people to get them to give up their email address was pretty thin,” he told me recently. “A lot of times media sites just weren't even making it clear what you got and why you would even want to register.”
Luckily, HBR had a trove of immensely valuable content behind its digital paywall, which at the time kicked in after a reader had browsed a handful of stories. Hellweg’s team decided to test whether they could convince a reader to give up their email address in exchange for more free access to premium content.
Eventually, HBR rolled out what’s called a registration wall. Unlike a paywall, which forces a reader to subscribe, a registration wall merely requires a user to create a free account to continue reading. At the time of its launch, HBR’s registration wall kicked in after a reader had consumed five articles, and creating an account allowed them to read 10 more.
It didn’t take long for email signups to come pouring in. Over the next few years they ballooned from 500,000 to over 3 million. And it soon became clear that these logged-in users were much more likely to convert into paying subscribers. And it wasn’t just paid subscriptions: “We had also built up a pretty good size business around sponsored webinars that anybody could sign up for,” Hellweg recalls, and “registered users were much more likely to respond to our invitations.”
This is why more and more publishers are placing registration walls -- like the one developed by HBR -- in front of their content.
Simply put, registration walls are extraordinarily effective at generating email signups, and email signups lead to revenue.
Sure, you can embed a signup widget at the bottom of articles or launch a pop-up message with its own call-to-action, but this only entices a small percentage of readers into signing up for a newsletter – average rates for such conversion prompts hover around 1-2% (though can of course be higher). Most will ignore the widget or close the pop-up.
But registration walls can generate an order of magnitude higher conversion. One of Pico’s publishing partners debuted such a wall about a year ago, and in the intervening period it saw a 16.5 percent conversion rate. This means that 16.5 percent of the readers who ran up against the wall decided to create an account. The wall has been so successful that the number of registered email addresses in the publisher’s database is greater (138 percent greater in fact!) than the number of unique readers who visit its website each month.
Registration walls also allow publishers to collect better data about their users. Your average reader might access your content across a variety of devices and browsers, especially if they’re attempting to get around your metered paywall. By forcing your audience to log in, you can more easily map their journey as they navigate your website; this can then lead to more actionable insights about what kind of content your most-engaged audience seeks out.
Perhaps most important, an already-logged-in reader doesn’t have to create an account when eventually prompted to pay, eliminating significant friction at checkout!
Of course, it’s important for any publisher to recognize that launching a registration wall does introduce a certain amount of friction further up the reader engagement ‘funnel’, and a portion of your potential audience will hit the wall and decide it’s not worth the hassle to follow through. And if your business model depends on maximizing the number of pageviews so they can be monetized through programmatic ads, then a registration wall might not be right for you.
But there are certainly ways to reduce that friction as well as mitigate potential ad revenue losses. For instance, your registration should require little more than a user’s email address. Even better, it should leverage Facebook and Google’s single sign on tools to allow the user to sign in with one click. With the advent of magic link sign-in capabilities, you should never be asking users to create a password up front. Meanwhile, locking content after one or two paragraphs or with a timed delay interstitial allows most high-value ads to still appear.
What content should you put behind a registration wall? Some publishers, like HBR, install a meter that allows a fixed number of free articles before the reader hits it. Others place the vast majority of their content in front of the wall, only installing registration tripwires on their evergreen, feature-length content. We’ve also seen publishers disable the wall for users who are referred by Facebook and other social media sites.
The most important requirement for a successful registration wall is that it communicates what value can be derived from setting up an account. I’ve commonly found myself running up against these walls and having no clue as to what handing over my email address will get me. More free content? The ability to comment on articles? Access to an exclusive Slack community? Early access to events or merchandise sales? Or is it just going to prompt me into paying for a subscription?
It’s important for publishers to remember that paywalls are a relatively new development in the online news environment. Consumers spent the better part of the last 20 years accessing content for free. As the industry continues to pivot to subscriptions, it’s vital for every publisher to consider the purchase funnel and what entices a user into converting from a free reader into a paying member. Simply hitting those users with a paywall will alienate many of them, but developing a real relationship with them -- one facilitated through account registration then an email newsletter and only then a membership or subscription offer-- could be the key to monetizing your content to its full potential.