Inside The Information's paywall strategy

Jessica Lessin breaks down the site's strategies for converting readers into paying subscribers.

These days, nearly every digital publisher utilizes some kind of reader revenue strategy, but when Jessica Lessin quit her Wall Street Journal job and launched The Information in 2013, digital subscriptions were still a novel concept. At that time, the paywalls that existed were usually metered, but Jessica was among the first to place her website’s entire library of content behind a hard paywall. If you wanted access to any of its articles, you needed to fork over up to $400 a year for the privilege.

In our interview, I asked Jessica about why she chose that model, how her journalists compete with much larger publishers for scoops, and what marketing strategies drive the most paid conversions.

To listen to the interview, subscribe to The Business of Content on your favorite podcast player. If you scroll down you’ll also find some transcribed highlights from the interview.

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This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Why she chose a hard paywall

Back in 2013, most in the media weren’t sure yet whether consumers would pay for digital news. Sure, The New York Times had seen some success, but it was nowhere near the subscription behemoth it is today. Most assumed that you still needed to utilize some kind of freemium model. But Lessin never hesitated in locking nearly all of The Information’s content behind a hard paywall. “It was very core to what we were trying to do, which was to publish journalism and serve our readers with news that was worth paying for — that had differentiated value. And I thought, at the time, that if you're a publisher and experimenting with a blended business model, you can muddy that very clear editorial objective.”

Part of The Information’s early success stemmed from Lessin hiring veteran tech reporters to join her team. Many were attracted by the idea that they’d no longer have to chase traffic goals or rewrite commodity news. “I think the clarity of our model certainly attracted the kinds of journalists we wanted on the team and probably repelled those who weren't such a great fit. But I think what's really interesting to me is how much things have changed in the last seven years. Now, you see journalists who once flocked to places with free models and massive web traffic starting their own Substacks with very small, devoted audiences and they are getting incredible professional satisfaction in doing that.”

How The Information drives paid conversions

I asked Jessica what’s the leading conversion channel that entices someone into becoming a paid subscriber. Many publishers, for instance, have found that getting someone signed up for a newsletter will make them more likely to subscribe. “It's our articles, it's our scoops, it's our features. Today it's a story that gets inside the next generation of leadership at Amazon and reports on some of the lesser known executives who are really rising now that there's this changing of the guard with Bezos preparing to step aside. Yesterday it would have been some scoop about something else, but it's really our articles in general that bring new subscribers in.”

Sometimes a major scoop will create its own momentum. “Big stories will pull in a lot of subscribers, and in addition to pulling them in directly, we'd see very elevated subscriber growth in the weeks following big stories as well. Sometimes it's the actual piece, but sometimes that piece has this sort of halo effect, if you will, and people are finding us through different channels after that.” 

One peculiar thing I noticed when visiting The Information’s homepage is that you have to scroll down rather far before you encounter any headlines. Instead, it tries to get you to sign up for a newsletter. “Our reason for doing that is simply to build a direct relationship via email. So I think there are actually a lot of ways that readers decide to give us an email. Some might want to read a newsletter. We also unlock at least half of our stories that can be read in exchange for someone giving us their email.  I think one of the great lessons in subscription funnel economics that we've certainly learned is the value of building that direct relationship via email, and then continuing that relationship with the reader over time.” 

Why it expanded into opinion and analysis

The Information used to focus primarily on hard news, but a few years ago it launched a newsletter product that allows its journalists to provide analysis of daily tech news. “While our journalists are really focused on the stories they’re breaking, we heard from our readers that they wanted our take on the big news of the day as well, because many members of our team have been covering these companies for a very long time and are really knowledgeable reporters. So now they’re able to quickly dash off their take on some of the daily developments, and we post those on our site and aggregate them in newsletters. Our managing editor also writes a very popular afternoon briefing email as well.”

The publisher also launched a weekly podcast called The Information’s 411. “We don't currently run ads on the podcast. We’re very excited about growing our sponsorship business, primarily around our events, and I could see some ways to tie podcasting into that over time. But right now, the focus is on just delivering a great podcast.”

When The Information launched, tech was more of its own separate niche, but we now live in an age where every company has become, in effect, a tech company. “Only about half or slightly under half of our subscribers work in technology. Our community today is really the world of business professionals, because I think every savvy business professional is paying attention to technology. Whether you’re deciding what cloud computing service to buy or trying to figure out how to leverage AI to do your job better, our mission is very much to serve the next generation of business professional who need to understand technology deeply.”

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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on TwitterFacebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at simonowens@gmail.com. For a full bio, go here.