2. Soft Paywall & Freemium Model: Most successful Subscription Models for Websites


This article is the second of a series in which we look into the different subscription models for media sites. In this edition, we breakdown the pros and cons of the Soft Paywall as well the Reverse Paywall (also known as "Freemium") subscription models. In our first installment, we detailed the specifics of the Hard Paywall subscription model.


Want to learn more about alternative revenue streams for websites? Make sure to check out our article on Selling Products as one of the Four Best Alternative Revenue Streams for Media Sites and discover more ways of monetizing your audiences.

Soft Paywall

Soft Paywall, also called “metered access”, is the most popular among all online subscription models as it gives visitors free access to your website’s content with certain limitations. Once these restrictions are reached, visitors are then prompted to subscribe to your website in order to consume more content. This limit could be the number of visits, the number of articles read, the amount of time spent on the website, a specific geographical location, or even the nature of the device used to consume your content.

One possible strategy to keep in mind when looking to expand into new markets, like foreign countries or a different niche, is to start off with completely free access. Keeping your website open and allowing free access to your content will attract and hook your target audience before you raise the paywall. This gives you time to test out the amount and types of content you would want to keep as “free”, while keeping an eye out on which content formats are of true value to your users.

Today, The New York Times is one of the most successful users of the Soft Paywall. Readers of The New York Times can enjoy access to 5 free articles, and then 5 more after signing up to the website’s free newsletter. Once these 10 articles are consumed, readers are prompted to pay a subscription fee for unlimited monthly access to the paper’s archives. The paper now makes more money from its subscriptions than it does from advertising. As a result, it is looking into ways to make its advertising as valuable to its readers as the content it creates.

“Freemium” or Reverse Paywall

A Freemium subscription offers users free access to part of a media website’s content and features, but charges them for additional features, services, or virtual perks. Freemiums are appealing for consumers who don’t mind missing out on particular perks as longs as they get access to their regular content for free. For instance, Spotify’s non-subscribed audience enjoys free unlimited access to a library of music on their mobile devices, but they have to pay a fee for the ability to skip tracks, shuffle them, play them offline and remove pesky ads. Still, many people value the ability of streaming music for free, despite the restrictions they might encounter.

One of the challenges of setting up a Freemium subscription is working on two separate strategies for your free users and your paid users. The trick is in giving your readers access to appealing free content that peaks their interest enough for them to want to subscribe. For example, offering the first few episodes of a TV show for free would hook your audience enough to pay for the rest of the season. Chinese platform Qidian follows this method by developing serialized fiction that starts off being free, and that is then converted to “VIP Content” which requires readers to complete micropayments to read.

Politico, an American political magazine, distributes content through newspapers, TV, the internet, radio, and podcasts. In 2010, Politico adopted the Freemium subscription model. However, instead of assessing which of its available content was worth paying for and which should be kept free, the company decided to create a premium service for subscribers. Politico Pro was launched as a premium offering, for which 100 reporters created in-depth content in over a dozen major topic areas. The service charges readers a different fee for different topic areas, and has a 93% subscription renewal rate. As a result, Politico Pro accounts for around half of the company’s revenue.

Soft Paywall and Freemium subscription models are two of the most common subscriptions adopted by media websites to generate more revenue.

To find out more about other subscription models, check out the rest of the articles in our subscription series

Are you looking to upgrade your online business with a subscription service? Make sure you read up on How to Choose the Best Subscription Model for Your Website.

Karl El Hitti

Karl is a Creative Media Strategist at Bookwitty. His expertise lies in content marketing and original content. Karl also helps build marketable narratives around rising musicians as part of The Studio Keeward Music Residency Program.