For some avid online readers, paywalls are a scary threat, but for many writers and publishers, they’re a beacon of hope for the future. Currently, users around the world take it for granted that content is free and unlimited, while writers invest their time into generating content in the vague hopes that the attention they get from users eventually translates into meaningful revenue. They may use ads or sell a service once users actually get to the site, but the content itself doesn’t generate revenue.
Paywalls, on the other hand, force users to pay a small fee to read the full content of an article. There are a variety of different styles and approaches currently available—for example, the Times of London uses a very strict paywall that hides content unless you fork over a subscription fee, while the New York Times allows certain types of visitors to read content for free (like social media visitors). Others allow a “sneak preview” of content before forcing a per-article fee, and still others enforce further variants.
Essentially, paywalls allow writers and publishers to make money directly off the content they write—like they could before the Internet was available.
The short answer is: too many other writers and publishers are offering content for free.
Publishers that use paywalls are finding themselves handily outcompeted by rivals offering similar content for free. There are simply too many nationally relevant competitors all vying for attention to make a pay-per-read addition effective. To make matters worse for paywall publishers, Google has a tendency to rank free content above paid content. After all, Google wants to provide the best possible resources for its users, and that means giving away free information. The problem is, companies that use paywalls miss out on potentially huge volumes of visitors, through no fault of their own.
Google isn’t necessarily opposed to paywalls. In fact, it’s come up with a compromise that many publishers don’t even know exists. It’s called First Click Free, a voluntary program that allows publishers to offer all their content for free—as long as it’s for the first time a user clicks. On subsequent clicks or visits, the content is hidden behind a paywall. This program is presumably a good middle ground—Google continues offering free content without disrupting paid publisher operations, and paid publishers get to retain their paywalls without missing out on massive volumes of traffic.
Still, there are a variety of problems with the program. Many publishers don’t know how to correctly implement this type of system, and some blatantly break the rules for their own gain. Plus, Google has very little investment in how paywalls pay out for major publishers.
Others in the news and content industry have proposed a variety of other possible solutions. Some have suggested that news sites use micropayments—sometimes as little as a few cents—to allow users to read an article. Others have gone out on a limb and suggested that Google pay publishers directly and then offer unlimited content to users for a Netflix-style monthly subscription.
Publishers, writers, and artists have been crying out for more reliable revenue from their work since the Internet first established itself as a source for free content. The gradual rise in paywall popularity is piquing the interest of writers and publishers all over, and Google’s stance on other forms of paid content is raising eyebrows. For example, if you search for a possible song, Google will offer paid downloads of that song as some of the top results. The same cannot be said for news and other written material—instead, Google strongly prefers free content.
It’s unclear what type of solution will develop from this rising demand, but a solution will come, and probably within the next 10 years. It could be that paid content, even if it’s in the form of micropayments, becomes the new standard for online reading. It could be that Google simply adjusts how it ranks paid versus non-paid content.
The bottom line is that paywalls will quickly become a new standard. They’ll be easier to put on existing sites, more customizable for interested entrepreneurs, and more common in general. This shift in consumer expectations will inevitably cause content marketing to change forever.
Until this point, content marketing has been about the peripheral benefits. Writing content for free and making it available for free attracted more people to your brand. From there, you could earn more sales, generate more leads, or generate ad revenue based on the sheer amount of traffic you received. But paywalls would render that model unnecessary.
Instead, that content could be hidden behind a paywall, and if it’s impressive enough, it could generate revenue all on its own. Companies in industries that rely on products or services would suddenly have a brand new line of revenue, and any company not using a paywall might have their content seen as inferior—after all, if they’re giving it away for free, how good could it be?
It’s uncertain how the popularity of paywalls will develop, but it will probably come about more slowly than most online trends. The big player here is Google; if Google can get behind a paywall-favoring initiative, the shift could happen in a matter of years. If not, who knows how long it will take?
Want more information on content marketing? Head over to our comprehensive guide on content marketing here: The All-in-One Guide to Planning and Launching a Content Marketing Strategy.