To paywall or not to paywall? That is the question bouncing around many-a-publisher’s head. Of course, if it works, extra revenue is brought in, great. But, what if the audience doesn't go for it? And the product ends up in a worse state financially than pre-paywall, with dwindling advertisers to boot. Surf forecast website Surf2Surf has decided to take the risk, and though it’s very early days yet, results so far are promising.
Since 2004, Surf2Surf for the wave-riding inclined has been much like the traffic forecast for the morning commuter. It provides accurate reports on popular surfing spots, with live-streaming cams and to-the-minute information. And, as my surf-worshipping co-worker says, the information is invaluable. It saves surfers from having to drive down and check out the conditions for themselves.
So, given the usefulness of the site, the decision to introduce a paywall was a bit of a no-brainer but it was also bordering on necessity Surf2Surf founder and director at Greenroom Surf Media Paul Brunskill says.
“Basically we just got to the point with our business where we just needed a business model change. We already had some subscribers for some of our content, so it was just a case of going one step further and moving a little bit more to the subscriber model.”
For a niche site that size, it’s pretty expensive to run streaming cams and put new ones in which cost several thousand dollars each, he says. “So it’s basically a decision we had to make.”
No easy feat, over the past six months Brunskill and his team worked tirelessly setting up the paywall and making adjustments to the site, launching the paywall last Friday.
“We designed and built everything in-house between the three partners … They are the two developers and I am more on the design side with an ad agency design background. We were silly enough to build the desktop site at the same time as developing our own app for iPhone and Android.”
Surf2Surf is actually a really complex website, he says. “Live streaming, pulling data from sources, manual data input and then the complexities with advertising.”
Affordability for users was high on the priority list, says Brunskill, with a one-month subscription costing $5 and a yearly subscription costing $49.95.
He says a one-month trial is also on offer, to ease users in. “So we really won’t know if the model change will work until the end of next month as [users] will take the one month trial and then make a decision whether to stick with it or not.”
And with monetisation comes expectation, so a bunch of improvements were made to make the site’s offering even more appealing to visitors.
“It’s all changed. The reports are a lot more accurate, the tools are more accurate. There are more updates. We are updating twice a day when we used to just do a dawn report. Forecasting is written and hand modified and we have put in six new cams over the last couple of months. And we’re putting in another one this week.”
And, results are looking pretty good so far. “We had a weekly sign up target that we hit in two days. It’s been really good.”
The advertisers don’t seem all that concerned either.
“It’s been surprising how little advertisers have worried about a drop in readership,” he says. “We have had a lot more inquiries from people just wanting to get on. And our existing sponsors love the new direction and look of the site. We are sponsored by Subaru and Gull then our forecasting sponsor is Dragon Alliance Australia, which is new for 2016.”
The business intends to improve what it does with the sponsors, he says. “We love working with those companies. Subaru and Gull are awesome brands to work with.”
Despite the fact that there are other sites that offer part of the same service, like Airtime (which just added a new live-streaming camera to its network today), Brunskill doesn’t sound all that concerned. “Our focus is on improvement of Surf2Surf.”
And with 125,000 unique users of the site in just the past 30 days, perhaps he shouldn’t be. According to Nielsen it's also the 7th most popular sports site.
But of course, every situation is different. Surf2Surf is catered to a niche market and doesn’t have the same kind of competition as some of the large media outfits in New Zealand, which might have more to lose.
As Brunskill told StopPress earlier: “Our users are extremely loyal and hungry for information because the ocean is changing constantly. I think we offer quality engagement with our users. Every day is an event. And again, our user demographic is a key draw card.”
Though, there are attractive selling points for advertisers with the paywall system. For example, Digiday highlights the fact that advertisers can gain valuable information through the registration process to a paywalled website.
And isn’t there more merit in having a selection of interested and dedicated readers who are on the site long enough to be exposed to ads, than freeloaders who cast their eyes over a webpage briefly and then move on to some other piece of clickbait on the internet?
Digiday also suggests that the data from registration allows advertisers to pinpoint a select, potentially affluent audience or demographic. So perhaps a loss in traffic can be made up for, more valuably, in other ways.
However, there are other ways to collect audience data and as Empirical Media managing director Steve Goldberg says. “For almost all publishers, the best they can do is use it as a filter in addition to - versus as a replacement for - third-party data,” he says. “One of the challenges is that paywall subscribers tend to be a small fraction of the overall audience, and that can lead to delivery issues, especially in shorter flights.”
The old paywall decision is a tricky one, which depends on many variables, and it can be implemented in many different ways. But, as streaming initiatives like Spotify and Netflix can prove, people are beginning to pay for things they wouldn’t have previously, for a quality user experience.
It's just a matter of wait and see, watch and learn. Some probably famous person once said it’s better to be second at something (or ‘fast second’ as the Harvard Business Review informs), as then you learn from mistakes and you get out there and do it better. Maybe it’s even better to be fourth?