Hard Times


The paywall around thetimes.co.uk has driven away readers and brands, writes Andrew McCormick.

When the first edition of The Times was published on 1 January 1785 it relied on the technology of the printing press.

Its current editor, James Harding, claims that, in erecting a paywall around its website, the newspaper is, similarly, simply taking advantage of the latest innovations.

Life at The Times was much simpler before the advent of the internet, when customers would happily hand over the cover price in return for that day's issue.But, as circulation of print titles has fallen, it has created a test case for how media may be consumed in the future by introducing charges of pounds 1 a day or pounds 2 a week for online access.

As well as raising subscription income, News International (NI) wants thetimes.co.uk to remain an essential part of advertisers' online marketing plans. It hopes to achieve a position where high-end readers result in high prices for ads, but that requires it to attract a loyal wealthy audience.

It should surprise no one that since the introduction of its paywall The Times has lost two-thirds of its online audience, according to analysts Experian Hitwise. It is, however, the breakdown of those abandoning the site that should make the commercial team at NI sit up and take notice.

Exclusive research carried out for Marketing by UKOM/Nielsen reveals that even those for whom the access charges are small change, have been put off by the requirement to register to read The Times online (see graph).

Readership shift

This is bad news for NI in two respects. First, ads that are behind paywalls often target a wealthy audience and therefore brands are charged a premium to place them. Second, if the less well-off readers who have remained faithful to The Times online are having to scrape together the money to pay for their subscription, they are unlikely to upgrade to The Sunday Times Wine Club and other added extras, critical for the company's wider financial success.

Moreover, a quick glance at the advertisers on the site reveals that few prominent names have been tempted so far. Accenture, Lloyds TSB and The Holiday Place are the main brands to have ventured behind the paywall.

Compare The Times website with that of The Guardian or The Telegraph and the differences are marked. While the former has a few banners for non-sexy brands and house ads, Mercedes, O2 and Virgin Media are using its rivals to run high-profile digital campaigns. …

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