Tall Pay Wall for The Times in the U.K. Hits Traffic Hard

Murdoch Testing Ways to Wring Revenue From Site

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LONDON (AdAge.com) -- Rupert Murdoch's experiment with a pay wall for The Times newspaper in London has yielded its first results: a two-thirds drop in the brand's market share within the print news and media category since it began demanding registration in May and subsequently erected a tall pay wall on July 2.

But audience numbers may not be the singularly important measure that they once seemed to be on the web; they certainly won't be for The Times in its new experiment. And The Times' effort is only a beginning.

The current Times paywall is essentially an 'all or nothing' offering, shutting out non-subscribers from almost all content.
The current Times paywall is essentially an 'all or nothing' offering, shutting out non-subscribers from almost all content.
But it's still revealing, and perhaps saddening, for some of the paper's journalists, that The Times is seeing its prominence on the web fade. In the weeks before the pay wall went up, it enjoyed online market share of 4.29% in the print news and media category, according to Experian Hitwise. By the week ending July 10, online share had dropped to 1.43% -- 33% of where it had been five weeks previously. By the week ending July 17, share had dropped even further, to 1.37%.

The pay wall effect seems evident from other angles as well. The Times Online attracted nearly 2.8 million visitors in May but only 2.2 million in June, a 21% decline, according to ComScore data. The average time visitors spent on the site fell 24% from May to June, meanwhile, and the number of pages visitors viewed sank 32%, according to ComScore. U.K. newspaper sites as a whole saw unique visitors slip 2%, time spent edge up 1.4% and pages viewed dip 1%.

The Times refused to comment on numbers, but those close to the matter suggest that about 150,000 users registered for access to the Times and Sunday Times while they were free, with 15,000 apparently agreeing to pay money.

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The site is currently promoting an offer of £1 ($1.50) for a 30-day trial, after which the cost is either £1 for a 24-hour pass, or £2 ($3) a week.

Although The Times will not discuss numbers, they are understood to be trying to charge a premium for advertising behind the pay wall. Sources indicate that ad rates have doubled to $45 per thousand users.

It's wrong to get caught up in the traffic numbers, said John Baylon, group digital trading director at SMG Group. "People are asking the wrong questions," he said. "The point is to make money out of the subscribers you have. It's about revenue per customer, not the number of customers."

Advertisers on thetimes.co.uk include DHL, BPP flexible learning, Hewlett Packard and Dubai property developer Emaar. Mr. Baylon said that News International has not been selling the site very hard, and are instead focusing on internal issues and looking at how it is all working.

There are also numerous factors at work in these early days beyond consumers' willingness to pay for news on the web. Mr. Murdoch's News Corp., for example, needs to get the site better sorted out. Readers have complained that it is slow and cumbersome, making it a harder sell when there are so many other news and lifestyle sites a quick click away.

The current Times pay wall is also an essentially "all or nothing" offering, shutting out non-subscribers from almost all content, but many commentators still favor a hybrid approach including a bit more free content that's subsidized by advertising and serves to draw in potential subscribers.

"I continue to believe that a mixed model, with multiple ways of making money, is the only way for general news publishers," said Hugo Drayton, CEO of InSkin Media.

"But it's a lot of hard work. There will be areas of content that will prove 'payable,' but not general news. I am yet to be convinced that the pay wall is more than part of the answer in a complex, fast-changing market."

Mr. Baylon, on the other hand, is more optimistic about the long-term prospects for the pay wall. "The consumer mindset is a big boulder, but 15 years ago, when Murdoch started BSkyB, nobody thought people would pay for TV when you could get it for free. Now he has 10 million subscribers, built on the back of great content."

The Times experiment, and all the attendant adjustments that will follow, needs to happen, said Graham Brown, founding director of consultancy Mediasense. Consumers can gorge on free content all day, but newspapers might not be able to survive without charging, he said. "The internet is an all-you-can-eat buffet, but eventually, like the music industry, newspapers will learn that they can't continue that way. ... It's commendable that Murdoch is prepared to take the risk."

News Corp.'s Sun and its Sunday sibling title, News of the World, are expected to eventually follow The Times into some sort of online pay strategy.

"They are likely to test all kinds of permutations -- it's their train set after all -- and if they can find a way to make digital content pay, then it's all worthwhile," Mr. Brown said.

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