Look Beyond the Meter: The Future of the Metered Paywall

This article, by Piano SVP Michael Silberman, was originally published on August 20, 2019 under the title “The Future of the Metered Paywall,” as part of the Online News Association's blog for ONA19, which took place September 12-14, 2019 in New Orleans.

Is the metered paywall seeing its final days?

It’s a question that’s taken center stage among digital media providers, and I expect it will come up as part of the panel and hallway discussions at ONA19. 

The recent release of Google’s Chrome 76 browser has only added to that conversation. The news that the Internet giant put an end to the loophole that allowed companies to track who was using Chrome’s incognito mode means an avenue has closed that previously allowed sites to detect users trying to circumvent their metered paywalls. 

That announcement alone has put a lot of companies on alert, but the truth is the release of Chrome 76 is just the latest change that’s weakened the technology that makes metered paywalls possible. Before it, an update to Apple’s Intelligent Tracking Prevention technology, also announced earlier this year, made it more difficult to track onsite behavior even using first-party cookies, opening up the risk that returning visitors using Apple’s Safari browser might not be identified. 

And those are just the changes that made the news. The truth is, users have always found ways to get around the meter — whether that means clearing cookies or using multiple browsers and devices.

Beyond the Meter

Changing up your model from a metered paywall to something that protects content at the server side — a freemium product, for instance — can help, and there are other actions you can take to realign your paywall strategy. Or you can go beyond just tracking pageviews and make the limitations of this new digital environment less of a factor, with a personalized paywall that doesn’t rely on tracking pageviews in the first place.

Through our work with over 150 mid-market and enterprise companies, Piano has had the opportunity to help guide customers through these decisions. And it’s part of what inspired the recent release of our machine learning framework, LT[x] (Likelihood To [act]).

With LT[x], companies can predict future user behavior based on dozens of user actions that go beyond just pageviews — making them less vulnerable to those technology changes. The first propensity model released, LTs, allows media providers to predict likelihood to subscribe. By using a starting base of 76 unique metrics, it allows media companies the opportunity to replace the meter with one-to-one customization based not on a random number of pageviews but instead on a browser’s specific likelihood to subscribe or not. 

And what we’ve seen so far isn’t just that there are plenty of variables other than pageviews that factor into likelihood to subscribe — but also that the way each of those metrics contributes is unique to every site. No two sites we’ve worked with so far have shown the same path to conversion.

The Personalized Paywall

So what does all of this mean?

By looking beyond pageviews, companies can target users specifically based on their own behaviors, not a set number — putting a subscription offer in front of someone more likely to subscribe, for instance, but a registration offer in front of someone who might need more nurturing. In a landscape where the relationship you develop with your users is key, it’s an opportunity to provide a personalized journey and improve your direct-to-user relationship. 

As technology changes, it’s also a chance to put an end to the metered paywall — before those changes do it for you.

Michael Silberman, SVP Strategy, leads Piano’s Strategic Services team, helping clients develop reader revenue strategies and drive success and revenue on the Piano platform. He joined Piano in 2018 after 10 years building the digital media business at New York magazine, and earlier, as one of the top editors launching and growing MSNBC.com in the early days of the consumer Internet.