Counting Up

Counting Up

Organisation: National Geographic (United States)

Publication Date: 05/06/2017


The costs of enterprise journalism create powerful incentives to put up paywalls around "premium content.” Yet these stories are the ones most likely to drive engagement and foster meaningful community. How do outlets introduce this storytelling to readers who aren’t yet loyal and paying—but could be? One solution, the traditional “countdown” paywall, allots a number of free articles before requiring the reader to pay. While this strategy can drive subscription sales for some outlets (e.g. The New York Times), numerous case studies show that it risks turning away readers just as they begin exhibiting reader loyalty. We propose a widget and user journey for a “count-up” paywall that progressively rewards users with content based on their engagement patterns. Our audience is the subset of readers who read multiple articles per month but do not log in or socially engage with stories. In other words, semi-engaged readers who could be persuaded to engage more but would be repulsed by a countdown paywall. Instead of hitting a paywall, a user is strongly encouraged to log in by either email or Facebook Login. A Django-powered widget then follows the user throughout the site, compiling their quality article completions, video completions, and social/community engagement. Data on a user’s engagement is then uploaded in near-real time to the publisher’s CMS, integrating with the user’s account details. At breakpoints set by the publisher, a mix of actions unlocks a class of premium access for a certain period of time. Throughout the user journey, the user is reminded that a paid subscription provides immediate, unlimited premium access. Publishers could also peg premium content access to modes of engagement that improve and deepen their journalism, such as contributing a story idea (e.g. Hearken) or meaningfully commenting (e.g. Coral Project). By incentivizing engagement, news outlets can increase their overall reach and engagement beyond what paywalls would produce, offsetting initial costs with increases in ad revenue. In addition, logging in would give publishers’ marketing and sales divisions richer insights into reader behavior, improving sales opportunities. However, unlike standard ad-revenue models, the count-up paywall progressively rewards engagement, building trust among readers that publishers could then leverage to encourage (potentially ad-free) subscriptions.

Technologies used for this project:

Our prototype widget is built using Javascript, HTML, and CSS, and was tested in National Geographic's internal development environment. Mockups were created in Adobe Photoshop, and the widget was coded using Sublime Text Editor. Implementation into National Geographic’s CMS would take three sprints, or 6 weeks. Cost to build would be a team of 6 front and back-end engineers.
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