The Times Paywall: The Verdict?
The verdict, according to industry feedback I’m receiving this morning, is a thumbs down. News International has revealed today that 105,000 people have paid up for access to the Times website since it went behind a paywall with its newly-established Sunday Times sister site. As a topline number it’s not bad, but most observers regard it as an inflated figure.
Inflated, not so much because it includes iPad and Kindle subscribers (somewhere around 30,000) but because it adds in all of those who have enagaged in any sort of transaction since the big experiment started four months ago. Some, perhaps many, of those will have drifted away after giving the walled garden a try. News International admits that many of those included in its top figure are “single copy or pay-as-you-go customers” who are far less valuable than subscribers though an important part of the business plan.
Among those least impressed by the revelations is media buyer Rob Lynam, press buyer at MEC. He said that although News International was claiming that some 50,000 people of the total were monthly subscribers to the sites, some of those would have paid just £1 for an introductory 30 day offer.
“At the launch they had the exclusive material on Peter Mandelson’s biography, they had a substantial TV campaign and heavy cross-promotion across the newspapers,” said Lynam. “With the amount of support they have given it they would have been hoping for a bigger number.”
Lynam has long been doubtful of the wisdom of charging for online access to newspaper content and he said the latest figures would not cause him to change his buying strategy. “If we had more clarification with the numbers and types of people subscribing we might look at it with more interest – but I don’t think it has been a huge success based on that.”
He also thought that News International’s inclusion of an additional 100,000 “joint digital/print subscribers” was misleading as in reality these customers were “print first and digital second”, having merely activated the online account that came with their newspaper subscription.
Other media analysts were also sceptical, saying that the positive spin that News International was presenting could not disguise the fact that online traffic had fallen from 21m a month to a combined 2.7m a month. “It will be interesting to see how The Times looks to arrest this trend,” said one media analyst. “What is clear is that if they wish to continue with a paywall they will need to reposition their offering and work harder to convince readers that a similar product cannot be found elsewhere for free.”
Both paidcontent uk, which said the numbers looked a “little meagre”, and Roy Greenslade of MediaGuardian, who said that NI had “not created a sufficiently lucrative business model”, were also largely unimpressed. Both complained that the figures released did not present a full picture but also conceded that the paywall adventure was still at an early stage.
More optimistic was Greg Hadfield, the former head of Digital Devleopment at Telegraph Media Group and now an executive at the media agency Cogapp. Hadfield tweeted “How many news websites have knowledge of 200k users?”. That comment recognises that it is the depth of the relationship with the users that is important, not just the top figure.
“News International will have an enviable amount of data about their users and readers. This data will provide immense insight that, I am sure, will inform future action as The Times and The Sunday Times step up their game,” he tells me. “In a digital world where a beta launch is established practice, these numbers – and the insight they provide – must be regarded as a step forward.”
Nonetheless, we still can’t fully assess the depth of relationship when we don’t know how many people have paid for access to a single page and how many are genuine regulars who pay weekly or monthly subs and visit the site every day. News International says it has not released more detailed data because the market is in such a state of flux.
“The message we want to convey is that people are willing to pay. If you think of where we were six months ago, that in itself is not a small statement,” says an NI source.
Importantly it knows who all these customers are, which is the first step towards replicating in the newspaper market the runaway success of the BSkyB satellite television subscription model that NI chief James Murdoch formerly oversaw. We certainly can’t write the paywall off yet.Tagged in: BskyB, james murdoch, media, news international, rupert murdoch, the sunday times, the times
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