Social Paywalls, Don’t Put Your Content Behind Bars

A number of new plug ins have appeared on the scene that take the concept of a web site paywall to a (potentially) new low. I’m talking about the rise of the social paywall plugin.  On the surface, it seems innocuous: instead of charging users money to view your content, a la the New York Times or Boston Globe and their limited content paywalls, you attach the reveal of your content to a like, share or other social action. At first, this seems like a great way to get people to share your content, and to increase your social media presence. Digging deeper, it creates some challenges.

User Experience

The first challenge you face with any paywall system, monetary or social, is how it is delivered. Paywall systems that deliver a portion of the content prior to asking for your payment work somewhat better than those that just block the content altogether with a pop up or gated web site. User behavior dictates that the person who has come to your site interested in content and who is then confronted with a blocking pop up will simply move on and try to find the information elsewhere. That’s the best case scenario – in the worst cases, they will be annoyed at the road block and take to the internet to express their frustration. In general you don’t want to annoy your potential customer or reader, especially in the first moments of their experience with you.

With the trend lately to “surprise and delight” the people your brand comes in contact with, it’s important to evaluate how this kind of information gating will accomplish (or hinder) that process.

Brand Story

There is also the question of what kind of brand story you want to tell. Do you really want to be “that brand” that makes an ask for every site visit? The brand always coming to the customer with their hand out? You can be that brand, but it will not get a great response from your customer.  It’s better to be the brand that gives, that actively works to create emotional relevance and connection, and to be useful. There is nothing useful about content-gating.

In fact, if you are a brand that has a compelling content story to tell, people are going to click like on your pages, share your content, and comment or otherwise engage naturally. It simply may take a bit longer to build that relationship, something that is difficult for a brand trying to balance social media and content marketing ROI with earning the trust of their customer and potential customer.

Advocate Armies

Some companies talk about building “advocate armies”, and to those that use that phrase without knowing what it means, a social paywall may seem like a shortcut to achieving that goal. Here’s the kicker: if you make someone like you, it’s a bully marketing tactic. It doesn’t generate loyalty, repeat business or enthusiasm. It simply makes your customer accomplish a chore before they even know if you bring them value.

True advocate marketing is about a relationship you build with the people most enthusiastic about your company. By giving those advocates a platform and encouragement and value, you get more lasting value than just the ego metric of a like or share. Look at what Influitive is doing with B2B advocate marketing, for example. They are using participation and conversation inside a simple to learn tool to create armies of advocates for their B2B clients. Branderati is doing something similar in enterprise level B2C advocacy, and Addvocate applies the model to your own employees. These are all companies that offer value before making an ask. This creates a much more effective crowd of advocates telling your story (and their stories and how they relate to yours).

Keys to Advocacy

It’s key to create the kind of advocate relationship that works not only for you, the brand, but also for your customer. Some easy ways to make this happen include:

1. Be useful! Make sure every piece of content you create is useful. Address a need, acknowledge a need or solve a problem each time you put something in front of your customers.

2. Be inspirational! Being useful consistently can sometimes be difficult to achieve when you are generating content over time. Peppering usefulness with inspiration will help you  rise to the top in your customer’s minds. They’d rather be inspired by than talked at.

3. Embrace discovery! If you find something enthusiastic, inspirational or otherwise appropriate that has been created about your brand by a customer, reach out to them. Promote them without expectation. If you want to increase the level of support and gratitude, reach out to them personally and find out how you can highlight their content.

4. Make things easy! Make it as easy as possible for people to participate in your brand, and to advocate for you. Give them easy ways to find you, easy hashtags to remember, personal attention on your social channels, and help them talk about you and build community around you.

5. Encourage creativity! Be cheerleaders of your advocates. Find ways to showcase the creative things they do with your brand. Are they making vine videos of your products? Are they making photo memes about you? Are they posting haikus to your page? Whatever they are doing, embrace it, promote it and encourage it.


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