How to get your readers to love paywalls

Okay, maybe “love” is too strong a word, but a new study suggests that newspapers enacting paywalls should emphasize financial need, not profit motives, when announcing them to readers.

The study, “Paying for What Was Free: Lessons from the New York Times Paywall,” is by Columbia University associate research scientist Jonathan Cook and Indiana University assistant professor Shahzeen Attari. They surveyed 954 New York Times (s NYT) readers shortly after the paper announced, in March 2011, that it would enact a metered paywall, and then again 11 weeks after the paywall was implemented. In the post-paywall survey, participants read one of two “justification” paragraphs, one emphasizing a profit motive and one emphasizing financial need (that paragraph concluded, “if the NY Times does not implement digital subscriptions, the likelihood that it will go bankrupt seems high”).

Participants then “rated how the information changed their support for the paywall and their willingness to pay.” The results showed that “When participants were provided with a compelling justification for the paywall — that the NYT was likely to go bankrupt without it — their support and willingness to pay increased. In contrast, when participants were provided with a justification that emphasized financial stability, their support and willingness to pay decreased.”

The authors conclude, “Our results imply that many NYT readers resisted the newly implemented paywall and that perceptions of fairness are key to helping consumers adapt to abrupt changes in pricing. As other content providers follow the lead of the NYT, they may benefit from providing compelling justifications that convince consumers of financial necessity.”

That said, “most readers planned not to pay and ultimately did not,” the authors write. They “decreased their visits, devalued the NYT, and frequently planned to exploit loopholes to bypass the paywall or switch providers altogether.” So guilt is a somewhat effective weapon, but it’s not a guaranteed way to get readers to pay.

via Jim Romenesko