There’s been much jubilation from certain quarters of the news that The Times paywall is deterring users. The newspaper has been charging customers for its online content since June and is now £1 per day or £2 per week. According to Hitwise, there’s been a 66% decline in traffic and some analysts reckon the site now has just 15,000 users.
It should come as no surprise there’s been a steep decline in traffic, most news sites are free and The Times’ stories no longer appear in Google News. However, the ‘told you so’ crowd are claiming victory too early. Murdoch et al are far from finished and even if the site has just 15,000 paying users, that’s more paying users than any other UK newspaper website.
The truth is, advertising just doesn’t pay the rent for many publishers and the extra tough climate of 2009 saw titles close and journalists laid off in droves. I question the sanity of any journalist who doesn’t want the paywall to succeed (even secretly). If it does then it places a premium back onto content and reconnects the user to the business model in a way advertising doesn’t. Click through rates on skyscrapers and banners are a mere fraction of overall traffic on any site.
Personally, I don’t even see any adverts when I peruse the web thanks to a very useful app called Adblock Plus, one of Firefox’s most useful innovations. Everyone involved in online media can appreciate how vulnerable advertising-focused business models are for publishers and everyone is looking for alternatives.
There should be no underestimating News International’s commitment to this project. It’s a bold step but its pockets are deep and I predict it will plough on for many months, if not years, before conceding defeat. There will be some trial and error along the way, but the company can afford to play the long game. Its marketing team will be constantly dreaming up new ways to entice users to spend just £2 per week for its services.
In truth, this will be an easier sell than many first thought. After all, how much incentive do you need to spend £2, or even £1 per day? News International is a vast media empire and has options to create any number of bundles and extras in return for your pounds. Also, once you’ve subscribed, how much effort are you going to put in to unsubscribe? Curiosity will also play a role. Is it better than other sites? Is the content more interesting? Want to find out? That’ll be £2 please – can you really not afford that?
Perversely, The Times’ disappearance from Google might just help its paywall. You don’t feel very special reading a story already seen by three million people, it’s not even worth tweeting about. Indeed, The Times is already talking about creating a ‘club feel’ for its readers and everybody likes joining clubs. Rupert Murdoch might not be your favourite club chairman. But he’s already made us pay more for TV and football matches. My bet is he’ll do the same for news.