7 Best Practices For Subscription Barriers and Paywalls

Any site that restricts content to members is faced with how to tactfully use paywalls – you know, those pesky notices that pop up when trying to see something you don’t have access to. While they aren’t ever fun to see when you’re the recipient, there are ways to make them more naturally blend in with the process of joining your site.

The benefit for you? Fewer people dropping off your site when they run into one.

Here are our 7 main criteria:

  • Maintain contextual consistency
  • Provide clear CTA to explore pricing
  • Easy to find member login area
  • Death to generic language
  • Hit on features and benefits of your offerings
  • Provide a special offer (free trial, discounted price, etc.)
  • Have something of substance in front of the paywall too

Maintain Contextual Consistency

A majority of your users will hit the paywall barrier when attempting to access a specific page or piece of content – purely because most membership plugins and software are set up that way to begin with.

With that in mind, you need to be careful about what they see and read once they do hit the paywall. It can easily become a jarring experience for them when they expect to see a specific piece of content and instead are whisked away to a page with more generic messaging about your subscription.

In this case, you’re forcing them to quickly zoom back out at the larger offering, when they were geared up for something much more specific.

So the best practice here is to stay “zoomed in” and maintain the context of what they were trying to access as you pitch them on your offering. Let’s look at how the New York Times does this on their site once you’ve hit their subscription barrier.


Here’s what they do well to maintain contextual consistency:

  • Uses a modal window over the article – this helps the user keep their bearings (vs. taking them to an entirely new page) and it communicates a clear call-to-action: “subscribe now to uncover the article you were wanting to read.” Another option here is to have the paywall show up in-line with the article content itself so that users can see the first several sentences of the article before the restriction sets in (here’s a great example from The Sun).
  • Re-iterates the article they are trying to access using the snippet on the right (includes thumbnail, title, author and summary) – this holds relevancy to what they wanted in the first place and reinforces what they’ll get access to. A generic pricing or paywall page will not do this.
  • Good transitional language used (“To read this article and more…”) – this is a simple and very natural transition into this paywall window. This helps move the discussion from how to access this single piece of content to the at-large benefits of the membership.

Provide clear CTA to explore pricing

Leave no doubt as to what the next step is for them to get access to the content they wanted. Just like with any call-to-action (CTA) button, you want that next step to be spotlighted using these tactics:

  • Eliminate any other design elements or links that challenge or draw attention away from your CTA
  • Use bright, bold colors for the button and sufficient white space around it to help it stand out
  • Place it in a prominent spot on the page. People shouldn’t have to scroll around to find it.
  • Make the label on the button very clear and directive – “Start your free trial today”, “Subscribe now”, “View your options here”


Easy to find member login area

It’s common for your active subscribers to stumble upon the paywall barrier simply for not being logged in. Along with having a ‘Login’ link in your main navigation, you also want to provide a clear directive for how they can log in from the paywall message.



Death to generic language

One of the biggest downsides to using the default paywall notice from your chosen software is that the messaging is often too generic. For example, at the time of this writing, the default notice that the popular membership plugin, MemberMouse, uses out of the box is this:

“Oops! Sorry, this content is only available to members. If you’re already a member, you can log in below.”

There’s a lot going on there to make that rather cringeworthy. Apologizing and saying “oops!” as if you or they did something wrong is not helping. Also the generic language here does nothing to enlighten the user on what the benefits of your membership are or speak to your audience’s specific interests. This is not MemberMouse’s fault, of course, since their software is used by thousands of very different sites. It’s on you to customize your messaging to be more personalized to your audience.

Here’s a good checklist on how to customize it well:

  • Use jargon that your niche can understand and connect with
  • Reiterate on the primary problem that your site solves or the primary outcome they are after (ex: “Join today and say goodbye to suffering through painfully inaccurate screencasts”)
  • Don’t use language that makes it feel like a mistake or that they broke a rule by ending up there (e.g. “sorry”, “error” and “oops”)
  • Instead use language that encourages them to join in on the fun. Invite them in to be a part of what your site offers (ex: “Become an insider” or “Join over 4,000 other collectors who enjoy the full benefits of our membership”).
  • Keep it short and to the point – don’t make them read through paragraphs of text. Start off with a heading like we mentioned before (“Get access to this article and much more…”) and quickly show them the next step is to do that.

Hit on features and benefits of your offerings

The paywall notice is a great opportunity to touch on the popular benefits and features of your product. You don’t have to go through every one of them, but mentioning a couple of the more important ones will go a long way to drumming up some interest.


Provide a special offer (free trial, discounted price, etc.)

If you offer a trial period or standard discount for new users, be sure to mention that in your paywall notice. You’ll see that people are much more likely to move forward in giving your product a try if they can do so under a special offer or free trial.


Have something of substance in front of the paywall too

This is not a rule of thumb for every membership site, but more often than not, we really like to see plenty of valuable content in front of the paywall – meaning it’s free for everyone, regardless of if you’re a paying member or not.

This creates an opportunity for visitors to have a positive experience and receive something of value from your site (a prerequisite for anyone considering whether they want to start paying a subscription for something). Yes, a free trial is another way to help make that happen, but even that can come with some barriers to entry (not to mention, your free trial may be doing a poor job at providing a positive experience).

You’ll often see major publications like the New York Times or Financial Times do this by giving you 10 free articles per month. After those are used up, then they paywall is activated. Instead of making certain content free and others restricted, this keeps everything fair game (which certainly helps with SEO and content sharing).

Check out our teardown on Laracasts. We go into a little more depth on the tactics they use for splitting free and premium content in a way that is really effective at converting people to subscribers.

Also, take a look around OptionAlpha – a membership site that has a giant repository of courses, tools and other resources all in front of the paywall. The progression they’ve created into paying members is really interesting.