Facebook Will Test a Paywall Option to Instant Articles Later This Year

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Digital media has been struggling to find the ideal way to stay lucrative. Ad-blocking has done a lot to stand in the way of the standard ad-revenue model, and as a result many publications have turned to subscription paywalls as an alternative. It has not been a particularly successful or well-received approach, in the broad strokes, and you would expect Facebook to avoid anything which is under risk of becoming irrelevant, but they're doing it anyway.

In response to requests from several different publications, Facebook are set to start testing a paywall which would limit unsubscribed users to 10 articles a month on whichever publications are opted in. It's an almost identical model to the one which publishers use online, with the only different being that the number of free articles varies from site to site, whereas it would always be 10 for Instant Articles, in the name of fairness.

The partners would still have control over which articles appeared behind the paywall, as well as total access to subscriber data. The latter is probably of particular importance to partners, as it means that analytical data from subscribers will help them to figure out how to manage their paywall in order to make it as effective as possible. Reading data is also useful for that, although it's not clear whether or not that's also part of the deal.

As well formulated as this paywall format is, it doesn't detract from the fact that paywalls are still largely unproven as a format. They can be sidestepped relatively easily (private browsing, for example) and few publications offer a unique enough range of content to warrant a paid subscription. The internet is pretty damn big, there's almost nothing on there that you won't find a way to access without paying.

Add to this the fact that Instant Articles is distinctly more limited than standard news browsing, and the decision makes even less sense. Facebook have also implied that they will introduce a new, standalone web payment service to take subscriptions, which will make people even less likely to get on-board. All in all, this has all the hallmarks of a concession on Facebook's part, they're bowing to external pressure and bringing in something which runs almost directly against the media model they've set up. They might even be hoping that it does badly in testing. It's slated for a broader release in 2018, so we'll just have to wait until then.

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