When smart paywalls are dumb
Sharing paywalled articles in a newsletter is the ideal way to annoy your readers. At best it frustrates them that they can’t access the article you just told them they must read. At worst, it looks like you’re rubbing your privilege in their faces (“I’m a paid-up subscriber, and you’re not!”).
One piece of common courtesy is to flag paywalled links so readers don’t click through in vain. I try to do this, but it isn’t always simple – especially as paywalls are increasingly difficult to understand.
‘X number of free articles per month’ counters are common now, meaning the humble curator doesn’t know if their individual readers will be able to read the article or not.
And paywalls are getting smarter, too. The Wall Street Journal’s ‘bendy’ paywall behaves differently depending on a visitor’s behaviour. As Nieman Lab explained
earlier this year, “Non-subscribers visiting WSJ.com now get a score, based on dozens of signals, that indicates how likely they’ll be to subscribe. The paywall tightens or loosens accordingly.”
And editors at individual publications may remove the paywall on certain articles for a limited time, based on how those articles are performing. I clicked through to the FT’s Sorrell article at one point in the day and hit the paywall. Later in the day, it was free for me to read. Why? I have no idea at all.
Leaky paywalls are nothing new. Google’s ‘first click free’ policy used to let you onto a site to read an article you searched for, and some paywalls have let clicks from social media in without charge for years, but now it’s harder than ever to predict whether sharing a link will result in frustration or satisfaction.
So, what should publishers do to help visitors understand how a share will behave? A set number of free articles per month is fine as a basic concession to non-subscribers, but I’m a big fan of The Information’s unique share links for individual aticles.
As a subscriber, I can copy a special link that lets anyone I give it to read a specific article for free. Presumably, if I abused this by setting up a free version of the site full of my own share links, they’d be able to quickly shut me off.
In an ideal world, everyone would pay for everything they read. But that’s probably not feasible. So for now publishers, please share a thought for the humble curator.