Paywalls are everywhere right now. Whether it’s the successful pioneers and veterans, or the new kids on the block, everybody is talking about them, considering them, or building them. That, and the membership model, which may or may not involve a paywall, of course.

Reader revenue is contingent upon one key factor: Audience loyalty.

You can publish 150 posts a day, but if you don’t have return visitors (i.e. the people who don’t want to live without your content), a paywall or content meter is useless. Similarly, you can launch a new subscription offering, but if you can’t convert at least a modest percentage of your current audience to members or subscribers, you’re going to have an expensive uphill battle on your hands. If they don’t love you, they aren’t going to pay you to keep you. It’s that simple.

Understanding loyalty

Loyalty is your one and only point of measurement that will decide your fate in your quest for reader revenue.

And herein lies the challenge. The easiest way to gauge your audiences’ loyalty is to launch the product or put up the gate and watch how your audience reacts. A scary proposal, indeed. No one really wants to throw a party just to see if anyone will show up, right? If they don’t, you’ve invested time and money in a product or technology when your audience was never really there. It’s important to know the difference between visitors and an audience when gauging loyalty.

So, if you want to build a paywall or launch that membership program, ask yourself these questions:

  1. How often does your audience come back to see you? Is your traffic coming from mostly passerby visitors? This is commonly signaled by consistently high new visitor numbers in your analytics and low returning visitor numbers. Or, if your frequency of visit chart inside Google Analytics is bottom heavy.
  2. What are you bringing to the table, really? Can you state definitively what your target audience can’t get from someone else what they are currently getting from you? Is your content more informed, more witty, more entertaining, more crucial than that of your competitors? What sets your content apart from your competitors?
  3. How committed are you? Focusing your efforts on satisfying the reader–instead of satisfying the advertiser–is a significant shift in mentality for a lot of publishers. And change is hard. It also means putting your brand and content on the line and being judged by quality, instead of clicks.

Launch with methodology

Before you build the P&L on your new reader revenue initiative, start by diving deep into your analytics and understand what content your readers are responding to and returning for. Engage your readers to better understand which ones are your audience and which ones are just visitors. Use these strategies and you’re well on your way.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated.

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More about Melissa:  Melissa Chowning is an audience development expert and CEO of Twenty-First Digital operating in Dallas, TX. Twenty-First Digital takes a deep dive into deep-dive into digital strategies and audience development efforts to help you find no-nonsense ways to effectively drive traffic and supercharge interactions with your audience for tangible and lasting results. She studied communications at the University of North Texas, and has made her mark as a development leader for prominent brands, including Portland Monthly, Seattle Met, D Magazine, and D Custom. Melissa was recognized in 2016 as one of Folio’s top 100 Most Important People in Magazine Media.

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