By Dave Waller Tuesday, 02 November 2010

Times 'hugely encouraged' by online readership - but will it pay?

Visits to The Times' new pay-to-view website have dropped 87%. But that's all part of the plan, apparently...

The papers said that 105,000 people have paid to go behind their online paywall, and that a further 100,000 print readers had activated their digital accounts – taking the total, allowing for some duplication, to around 200,000. This wouldn’t sound so bad for a single month, but it hardly seems like great news given that it covers the four months since the paywall came in - especially when the combined papers’ circulation is 1.5m per week. But the paper seems determined to press on with its experiment...

At first glance the drop in users certainly seems steep enough to induce vertigo. The Wapping outfit was pulling in around 21m unique users a month to its front page earlier this year; that fell to 2.7m last month, with 2m for the Times, and 700k for its Sunday sister. Yet editor James Harding said the papers were ‘hugely encouraged’ by how the paywall has gone. Apparently they'd expected to lose 90% of the papers' online readers when they switched from the old model – the free provision of news – which Harding described as ‘suicidal economics’. Of course, there were plenty of people who saw the introduction of the paywall as equally masochistic, removing as it would the millions of users (and potential ad clickers) drifting in from Google searches.

Despite the figures, we’re still largely in the dark as to who’s right (we suppose 87% is better than 90%, but not by much). Clearly the real test – and of far greater interest to those all-important advertisers – will be whether the new model ultimately delivers a better audience than the site had before. And what will the revenue implications be? Will subscription charges make up for the likely shortfall in advertising revenue? News International is remaining tight-lipped on that – perhaps because all the introductory deals make it hard to tell, or perhaps because the answer to that question won’t paint it in the best light. No news is good news, as they say…

The figures certainly don’t reveal a huge amount. The total of 105,000 bundles all digital users together – counting ‘pure’ online subscribers together with people who have bought the £9.99-a-month iPad app, or the $22.99-a-month Kindle edition, which has been around since 2008. Many users will be on free or cheap trials, and we’ve also learned very little about where users are based. While the Times claims that they’re ‘affluent’, the marketing bods may seek something more concrete in terms of how many actually live in Blighty.

So the jury’s still out on the great paywall experiment. It is of course a long-term game, and there’s a chance Rupert Murdoch has other tricks up his sleeve yet - like tying in subscriptions with his Sky TV packages, for example. But as many observers have pointed out, if these initial figures were strong, then the Dirty Digger would surely have been jumping over himself to promote them...

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