Do publishers’ paywalls kill sociability?

If one of the things we’ve learnt so far within digital marketing is that becoming more social is a key ways to succeed, does the installing of a paywall on newspaper run websites effectively mean ‘killing’ their shareability?

The most topical example of this is The Sun’s recent introduction of its subscription service. Named Sun+, this has attracted 117,000 subscribers to its £2 a week service in approximately three months.

With The Times, The Telegraph, Financial Times all having already installed paywalls at various points in their online existences, with varying degrees of success, has this made a difference to how their material is shared?

Do they even care? If they are making enough money from subscribers, then perhaps the volume of traffic is unimportant to them.

Within your own social circles, will followers of your channel be annoyed that you’re posting a link to something they need to pay for? This obviously introduces a whole new argument about the value of content, and whether it should be free or otherwise.

Our editor-in-chief Graham Charlton (pictured above) took an in-depth look at The Telegraph’s metered paywall in his article earlier in the year, so let’s take a look at the other newspaper paywalls and attempt to shed some light on the questions raised.

Financial Times

Financial Times introduced its paywall way back in 2001, and in July 2012 FT’s digital subscriber base exceeded its print circulation for the first time. According to FT’s chief executive, John Ridding, it now has “600,000 people paying for the FT every day across channels. It’s never been that high in 125 years of the FT”.

That was in August 2012. The current model, a metered paywall, where registered users can access eight articles a month, but pay to read more, was introduced in 2007.

Introducing a paid subscription service made sense for the FT. A decade ago, 85% of the FT’s revenue was from advertising, this declined to 35%-45% in 2012, and digital advertising wasn’t helping to improve matters.

The major key to FT’s success is its content. It creates the kind of specialist content that people want to pay for; people with lots of money (is that fair to say?) Rather then general news, FT uses its 125 year long legacy to tap into its consumer’s trust and generate financial sector specific articles that can only be read on its pages.

In terms of social, I have no way of accessing the individual article’s share buttons, however it is possible to copy and paste the URL for that article. In sharing this, the reader will be immediately presented with the subscription options.

Although this is mildly inconvenient, at least it is technically free to read any article you share. You’ll just have to be happy to sign-up for the pleasure of doing so.

FT’s Twitter page currently has just under 1m followers, and regularly tweets links to its paid-for-content. Personally, I think this seems oddly contradictory. Using social is surely the best way to circulate content online for free.

If you’re tweeting links to paid for content then doesn’t this seriously stymie your growth? At least FT provides a few freebies for initial registry. But what of other models. Are they just preaching to the already subscribed?

The Times

The Times has my very most favourite paywall model in terms of how much it baffles me.

The paper has incentivised it to the maximum, and the basic subscription starts at £2 per week with a minimum contract of 12 months.

Here’s where I get confused.

There are share-buttons on every article, accessible outside of the paywall, but if you want share an article without subscribing… tough.

The Times can’t have thought this through properly. Even if you shared the link, and presented your followers with a sign-up before they could read it, surely this is better than not being able share it all?

Again, you can copy and paste the URL, but then what’s the point of even having these social buttons? This is a half-arsed approach to social, and smacks of antipathy.

Does The Times care? Not a jot.

According to World News Publishing Focus, The Times claimed 13,000 new subscribers in the first half of 2013, taking its digital readership to 140,000

The Times shut down its free-to-access Tumblr account a few months ago, and moved its opinion columns behind the paywall. The Tumblr account gained 66,000 followers in its one year existence but according to Nick Petrie, the Times social media and campaigns editor “it wasn’t driving traffic back to the site”.

Although The Times is the least-read quality (by their own admission) newspaper in the UK, Mike Darcey, the CEO of News UK says that The Times isn’t interested in its unpaying readers.

What have we really lost? A long tail of passing trade, many from overseas, many popping in for only one article, referred by Google or a social media link, not even aware they are on a Times or a Sun website, wholly anonymous.

A typically warm-hearted response there.

The Sun

According to Ian Burrell of the Independent, it took The Sun three months to do something that took The Times one year.

Katie Vanneck-Smith, the CMO at News UK has stated that the The Sun’s subscription service, named Sun+, has attracted 117,000 subscribers to its £2 a week service.

When you choose to become a wholly paid-for proposition, yes, you decide to walk away from a long tail of frankly not very valuable inventory”. This mercenary quote again comes from Mike Darcey. The inventory he speaks of is readers. Or freeloaders to be entirely frank. 

TheSun.co.uk had 30m unique users per month before the paywall, and according to the CEO “a significant proportion of them were overseas and what you would describe as passing trade.”

Now The Sun looks like this:

Sun+ offers subscribers certain perks, including meal deals, discounts, cinema tickets and access to its Sun+ Goals app, which has arguably driven a bulk of the subscribers.

The subscriptions generated by Sun+, combined with advertising, already makes one-third of the £50m annual revenue being made by the Mail Online, a currently free-to-read news site. It shuld also be noted that 54,000 of the 117,000 subscribers have played the Sun+ Lotto.

I’m relieved to say that as a non-subscriber to Sun+, I can still Tweet a link for an article on Mel Sykes’ ‘hellish break-up’.

But again, anyone reading it will be presented with this:

Would it annoy my followers if I tweeted a paywall link (irrelevant of the newspaper source)? Let’s look at a test case.

Entitlement

Adam Lashinsky wrote on CNN Money in October 2013 about his experience in promoting a Fortune magazine article on LinkedIn. Fortune currently resides behind a paywall.

He wrote the piece The Best Case Study You’ll Ever Read and stated near the bottom that 

The full version is here, and you’ll have to be a Fortune subscriber to read it. No apologies by the way: The kids say they can get everything they need to read for free on the Internet. Sorry. It’s not true.

This raised hell in the comments underneath. 

The post has been seen 96,539 times since 17 October, and accrued 192 comments, the overwhelming majority of which look like this.

In conclusion…

I’m very much in two minds about this.

Journalists, bloggers and writers can’t be expected to write quality content for free, and if revenue isn’t coming in from other sources, then why shouldn’t they get behind a paywall business model. We need food and shelter too.

However this still isn’t an ideal solution as I want as many people to read my material as possible, and if I can’t share it via social media, this severely limits my reach as a writer.

The comment above about ‘owing the reader the article’ really does stick in my craw though. Why would anybody feel that they are owed something just because it’s online? Are we so used to having everything online for free that we react with indignation when it isn’t? Clearly we’re used to over a decade of multiple blogs, YouTube videos and music streaming services spoiling us with content.

Perversely I also feel the same as the indignant commenters. I can’t believe that, if I was a Sun online reader, I would have to pay to read the news I’ve already been getting for free for years. I find it genuinely flabbergasting… and yet… I wouldn’t think twice about paying for a print copy in a shop.

Do we naturally assume that anything online costs nothing to manufacture? It’s not a tangible product, so surely there can’t be any overheads, and anybody who creates content online are just doing it out of the sheer love of it.

I’ll talk to my colleagues here in the Econsultancy office about what they think of that attitude. We provide research and reports on a paid-for basis, why aren’t we giving this away for free?

If Econsultancy tweets a link to one of our reports, and the reader of the tweet clicks through and is surprised to find they have to pay for it, why would this be any different to Nike tweeting a link to a product page containing its latest trainer? Is it the tangibility of the product? Expectation? Entitlement?

I realise that I may have gone a little sideways here, but i feel it’s all valid within the subject, and to be honest I’m only just figuring out how I feel about the matter while writing about it.

The examples I mentioned above are obviously established newspapers with respectively long histories of support, so I’ll follow up this article with a focus on smaller, start-up publishers and whether a paywall might be suitable for them or not, at a later date.

In the meantime, let me know your thoughts and feelings in the comments below.

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Do publishers’ paywalls kill sociability?

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