Can Your Business Afford To Give Away Free Content?

4th December, 2017 by

When Sir Tim Berners-Lee unveiled the World Wide Web in 1991, he intended its contents to be freely available to anyone with an internet connection. Yet today, the principle of free access is increasingly being called into question. Voracious online audiences are consuming content in unprecedented volumes, without providing the revenue streams traditionally associated with print media or subscription TV services. Every article, photograph, video and animation has to be created by salaried staff, or contributing freelancers who also need to be paid for their labors.

 Ads shall not pass

For many years, banner and display adverts generated sufficient income for websites to cover their costs while making a modest profit. Yet despite being worth over $200 billion this year, the global online advertising sector is facing a perfect storm of ad-blocking tools, consumer fatigue and search engine scanning. Intrusive screen-filling hover or interstitial ads are being ranked as primary content by web crawlers, which is disastrous for SEO purposes. And smartphone screens are barely large enough to display article text, let alone banner ads with their inevitable small print.

As a consequence, ad revenue is increasingly failing to underwrite website operating costs. This means that companies are considering charging for online content, which brings a very different series of challenges. In this article, we consider why the free-to-view business model is under threat, and how to maintain it. We also investigate methods of gating content, plus techniques for persuading audiences to sign up…


The merits of free content

Surveys suggest 95% of people will choose not to access gated content, which is a major problem for websites with modest visitor levels. Apart from an ISP subscription or mobile data contract, the internet is generally still regarded as a free resource where paywalls feel inappropriate. Some websites require registration to view their blogs and webinars, but most people assume entering a URL will display the site’s contents in full. The only widely accepted exceptions are streaming media providers like Spotify, where subscription fees are justified by the comprehensive resources on offer to members.

Unlike gated or paywalled content, publicly visible web pages are featured in search engine results pages – a key metric for ensuring a website ranks strongly. Free content can be shared among friends and colleagues or reposted on social media, organically generating additional engagement and brand awareness. It provides free advertising for products or services, while serving as a valuable resource for existing customers. There’s no inconvenience triggered by account registration, and no threshold requirements to meet before people are persuaded to sign up and hand over their bank details.


Here are some ways you can fund free content without having to retreat behind paywalls…

 Display advertising.

Display ads through social media represent a bright spot for the beleaguered digital advertising industry, and Google AdWords continues to quietly hoover up corporate marketing budgets. While selling your own ad space is an increasingly inefficient use of resources, sufficient monthly traffic volumes will persuade digital ad agencies to include your site in their roster of platforms. It’s crucial, however, to vet advertising carefully. Many sites have seen their reputations damaged by inappropriate advertising, while “trending” clickbait content should be avoided at all costs. Banner sidebar or header ads are still socially acceptable, particularly if they’re not animated and have at least a passing relevance to the site’s typical audience.

 Sponsored content. 

Featuring third-party content offers benefits and risks in equal measure. Guest contributors usually promote submissions through their own social media accounts, opening up new spheres of influence. Reciprocal deals generate cost-free content for both parties plus organic inbound web links – a key factor in SEO. And while advertorial content represents a form of advertising, it’s less intrusive and more controllable than interstitials or animated GIFs. The host website sometimes retains editorial control over sponsored content, ensuring its own voice isn’t drowned out by guest contributions. If this doesn’t happen, the site can become unfocused and end up as little more than a platform for third-party promotional material.

 Lead generation. 

Gated content isn’t intrinsically paid for – it may still be free. A basic web form can be used to capture names and email addresses for future email marketing campaigns. Some firms regard lead generation as suitable compensation for their labors, given the challenges in building contact databases through other methods. Third-party mailing lists tend to be worthless, and advertising campaigns perform erratically. However, consumers will hesitate to hand over personal information without assurances regarding the quantity and relevance of marketing literature they’ll receive.

 As a loss leader. 

Some businesses argue the production costs of online content are worthwhile in terms of driving traffic and supporting audiences. As such, editorial costs might be absorbed within a firm’s marketing budget, or tasked to someone with other responsibilities within the company. Delegating content production to junior staff usually results in lower-quality materials, but at least anything uploaded will be visible to search engines for ranking purposes. Also, few people will be able to represent a business more accurately and compellingly on its own website than a founder or senior employee.


The merits of gated content 

Gated content rarely includes community forums, volunteer sites or ecommerce platforms. It’s more commonly associated with copyrighted material or detailed white papers and webinars, in the same way that authoritative industry reports may be advertised for sale rather than made available for free download.

Charging for content allows companies to reduce or abolish on-site advertising if they wish. Ad fatigue is a recognized issue, and click-through rates on less popular websites often fail to justify advertising expenditure. Brash or jarring adverts distract attention from a web page’s core content, and might feature inappropriate messages or distracting design. Consider browser history-based ads displaying on a device shared by a whole family, or video clips that suddenly blare into life and startle anyone within earshot. Little wonder that ad blocking software has become popular with many consumers, further reducing CTRs and diminishing the efficacy of the digital advertising sector.

If paywalls represent the best way for a company to cover its content production costs, a variety of implementation methods are available. These are the most common ones…

 One-off fees. 

A “lifetime” fee is a way to pre-emptively pay for future content. However, this is not a popular option among website owners and administrators. Few people will visit a particular website year after year, so a one-off payment for unlimited access represents poor value. Companies will also absorb up-front payments into their annual accounts and then miss similar payments the following year, when turnover falls. One-off fees are only really suitable for standalone items; we willingly hand over a few dollars to watch a pay-per-view movie on demand, but we wouldn’t pay hundreds of dollars to watch fifty as-yet uncreated PPV items over the next decade.

 Subscription content. 

If a website contains high-quality proprietary content, people are more likely to pay for it. Even a modest monthly or annual subscription helps cover staff costs and site maintenance fees. It provides dependable income that can be budgeted for in advance, while setting policies to auto-renew encourages people to remain committed for longer. This should be clearly indicated at the outset, and canceling a subscription should be as simple as creating it.

There are also favorable arguments regarding audience engagement. Even though 95% of site traffic won’t progress beyond the registration form, paid-up members are demonstrating enthusiasm and may respond favorably to future marketing campaigns. There’s a big difference between twenty views and one authentic lead.

Freemium content.

Few customers are willing go beyond paywalls without understanding what’s on offer. This is the principle behind freemium content, where a sample of the copy is provided without charge before a fee is levied for access to the remainder of the content. People are far more likely to hand over card details once they trust that website as a resource. The same applies to displaying a report or white paper’s preview or executive summary, allowing consumers to gauge its relevance before requesting unrestricted access. It’s possible to create a series of infographics, blogs and podcasts, all directing traffic towards the paid-for content these samples are based on.


This is a popular option among media outlets, which permit audiences to read the occasional story for free. Familiar IP addresses are then requested to register, with content obscured until they comply. Like the freemium model outlined above, teasers demonstrate expertise and encourage people to sign up for more. A subscription typically provides unlimited access to the website’s contents, free from intrusive advertising. Best of all, since content is only blocked for repeat visitors, it’ll be scanned and ranked by search engines.

Whichever gated model you adopt, registration should involve the bare minimum of fields. Payment details have to be stored in a secure data center, and subscribers should be contacted before a credit or debit card expires, to update their details. A stable payment portal is absolutely crucial, since persuading the general public to pay for online content is difficult enough without error messages or duplicated payments. Cookies streamline the process of logging in past paywalls, and password resets ought to be streamlined as far as possible to minimize disruption or inconvenience.