Pay-What-You-Will, and Other Paywall Solutions for Online Media

Giving away the work of news and publishing companies online has been called “the original sin” of the internet. Since that metaphorical fall of Eve, digital media providers have been exploring how to move from open access to paywall structures, but not many have broke the code. That’s where one of’s  partners, Tinypass, thinks it can help.

Tinypass takes the workings of an e-commerce platform but provides it to publishers so they can select the best model for the proliferation of paid content based on their customer base. As part of our Lunch and Learn series for clients, we brought in Tinypass CEO,  Trevor Kaufman, to discuss how publishers should think about generating profits and creating user engagement through paywalls.

The Appeal and Challenge of Paywalls

For digital-only publishing outlets, paywalls represent an additional revenue stream to supplement ad sales or branded content. Legacy  media companies have used paywalls in the form of “digital subscriptions” to incentivize readers of print editions of their magazines and newspapers to try out the online formats.

The results have been mixed. The first paywall was enacted by the Wall Street Journal in the late 90s and continues to exist in a relatively staid format to this day, and the  New York Times has successfully maintained its paywall since 2011, with readers currently contributing 52% of NYT’s revenue by paying for online content. As a result of its success, NYT rolled out two additional paywall products last year, granting readers access to additional app products and behind-the-scenes footage in tiered price ranges. However, the Grey Lady saw significantly less positive results  from those  experiments, further validating how hard a paywall strategy can be to implement.

Rethinking the Model: Innovations in Paywall Structures

Paywalls were once the theoretical equivalent of the Berlin Wall — heavily guarded structures to be protested and brought down at all costs. While paywall hacks are still sought after by readers, publishers see “soft” paywalls, with flexible payment options, as a more palatable solution for people who began consuming content online during the era of open access.

Kaufman told the crowd at that Tinypass provides products that help publishers create these flexible paywalls. Their Applause product, for example, allows for “pay-what-you-will” functionality to encourage individual donations. Not just for major media companies, independent publishers and bloggers also use this tool as a method to request funds on select pieces of media in the vein of a scaled-down version of Kickstarter or GoFundMe.


Paywalls: Not Just Payment

Tinypass is billed as an e-commerce platform, but differs greatly from other e-comm solutions because of how it has customized its online monetization options for publishers and content. Kate Wilfert, an account strategist for the company, says publishers need to re-examine the concept of value exchange between publisher and consumer, a sentiment that has been championed by Jeff Jarvis in his “Journalism as a Service” series.

Wilfert explains that creative structuring based on the level of commitment and interest of the target audience has the best chance at success. Because of this, Tinypass doesn’t just set up paywalls; it “allows publishers to provide targeted user segments with opportunities to register, provide information, socially share, or watch video advertisements in exchange for premium access,” she says.

The company encourages its  clients to do thorough research, solicit audience feedback, and use solid analytical data to ensure that their readers are willing to climb over any proverbial wall to access premium content time and time again.

Paywalls and the Future of Journalism

Many media companies believe that the future of their solvency will require paywalls to work, and so many are looking to innovative technology solutions, like Tinypass,  while searching for the best way to present it to  their audience.

It is worth remembering, however, that  content is what sits behind any paywall – strategy and technology aside.  And  the  quality of that content will ultimately determine much of the success  of any publisher.