It’s been 20 years since The Buffalo News began publishing content online. Like so many other publishers during the first decade of the new millennium, The News found itself facing sinking profits as freely available content and online advertising opportunities cannibalized the print product.

Responding to a 40 percent decline in operating profits, the publisher launched its first paywall in 2012 in an attempt to recuperate some of those losses. In that initial model, non-subscribers could access 10 stories free of charge, followed by a weekly rate of $2.77 for additional content and $1.99 per week for Sundays only.

But The News soon found that the technology was easy to bypass and logging in was more cumbersome for paid subscribers than simply working around the paywall to access content. Furthermore, the technology was limited when it came to establishing targeting parameters for content, and its testing and reporting capabilities were extremely limited.

“We looked at solutions all over the place and every one we saw had flaws,” Buffalo News Editor Mike Connelly told News & Tech. “Either they were too easy to get around, or they had real data and reporting limitations.”

Growing its own

It wasn’t long before The News set out to develop its own solution to address all of these issues. Through its [BN]Tech division, the publisher developed a paywall app and launched it on The News’ site in 2017.

“It took about a year to get the first version built and we refined it over several years,” said David Adkins, vice president of technology for The Buffalo News and chief operating officer of [BN]Tech. Adkins was the primary architect on the project and worked with developers to make it a reality.

The News said it doubled its digital subscriptions within a year from the initial launch of the app. While the technology isn’t infallible, Connelly said it is far less penetrable than the previous paywall solution. Furthermore, the app gives The News the ability to make decisions about when and where to let readers through.

“We can still allow people through, but we’re doing it because of business strategy, not because of a deficiency in the technology,” he said. “Those choices can be driven by a need to grow subscriptions, and we can weigh the tradeoff between total traffic and pushing people to a paywall. We didn’t see the ability to control those factors with any other solution.”

Today The News is actively courting other publishers that it believes can profit from its paywall technology. Although he could not share specific details, Adkins said at least two publishers are currently evaluating the technology.

Tracking users

What sets The News’ paywall tech apart is the way it tracks users. It also closes loopholes in order to open up new digital circulation revenue streams. Reader data is easier to capture too, according to Adkins.

“We feed all of the data to a server on our end and then that server makes a decision on what’s going to happen on the paywall,” he said. “We track readers based on their IP address and Internet connection — other apps track based on cookies set on the user’s browser.”

The News currently charges $9.99 per month for access to content, and Adkins said other publishers are at liberty to set their own pricing with the app. For publishers who aren’t satisfied with their existing paywall results or who have plateaued after some initial progress, it’s very easy to run a sideby-side comparison where they can see the potential impact The News’s paywall solution can have. “

We really built this system to be dynamic,” Adkins said. “So it’s not one paywall, it’s many different rules. You can set parameters and paywall limits can differ based on the category of news, for example. We are on our way to having a true dynamic meter and that has been possible because of the way it was built.”

Connelly said the way the app was built makes it very easy to see cause and effect of the business rules it puts in place. For example, The News lowered its meter in mid-February based on some best practices data on how to maximize subscription conversions.

“One criterion was the number of users the paywall stops,” Connelly said. “The data suggest you will max conversions if you are stopping 5–10 percent. We weren’t where we wanted to be, so we tweaked our meter and we’re getting results — and we’ll harvest those results and tweak it again in three or six months.”

While Connelly acknowledges there is no silver bullet for the perfect digital subscription model, he said he believes dynamic meter technology is where things are headed.

 “This is a hard thing we are all trying to do, to build a digital subscription business — and this technology neutralizes a really significant issue that most everyone has,” he said. “It lets you focus on the things that should really drive subscription conversions.” 

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