Murdoch's Paywall Numbers Sound Better Than They Really Are
from the let's-dig-in-a-bit... dept
Well, after lots of speculation, News Corp. is finally releasing some numbers on how the paywall is going for The Times and The Sunday Times — of course, spinning them to sound positive. However, the deeper you dig into the numbers, the less and less impressive they sound. The big numbers are as follows:
- 105,000 people have paid for either the website and/or Kindle and iPad apps.
- 50% of those people chose a “monthly” subscription, rather than a one off.
- 100,000 print subscribers have activated the digital accounts that come with their paper subscription (i.e., no additional payment).
- Trying to eliminate any “overlap” here, the company claims “close to 200,000” digital users.
Now, that’s better than single or double digit numbers, certainly, but there’s still plenty of reasons to be skeptical that these results represent any sort of success. First, the “close to 200,000” may be a stretch. Considering that they already admitted many paying users didn’t get monthly subscriptions, it’s a bit misleading to suggest that such folks are really “users” on par with subscribers. Second, I’m guessing there may be a bit more “overlap” than News Corp. seems to be assuming. For example, I wouldn’t be surprised if many paper subscribers who also are addicted to their iPad/Kindles decided to subscribe to both.
But, more to the point, while they want to charge £2 per week, there has been a £1 per month “trial” option, which many people say they’ve signed up for just to see — but there are indications that many have no interest in paying the full price.
On top of that, the real question is if News Corp. can actually make more money doing this, and there the numbers again break down. While the release itself repeatedly tries to play up how much “more valuable” these users are, the press release practically seems to be begging advertisers to come back, with transparent statements like “Many of the early adopters live in the UK, are relatively affluent and engage with the products frequently.” That’s a not-so-subtle coded attempt to entice back all the advertisers who have bailed.
Separately, the massive decrease in traffic to the websites is going to take a toll on ad revenue. Apparently, The Times Online went from 21 million unique visitors per month, down to 2 million for the Times and 700,000 for the Sunday Times. Of course, I’m again left wondering how that’s the case if there are only 200,000 digital users. So, something doesn’t quite add up there.
Even so… assuming that the traffic numbers are accurate, those are certainly in a range where I’m very familiar with what sorts of ad rates you can get for an online property whose users are “relatively affluent and engage with products frequently,” and while they can support a small operation, it’s a rounding error to an operation like News Corp. The traffic numbers just aren’t that impressive for an operation that big.
Finally, the announcement tries to play down the idea that either publication has been taken out of the conversation, with someone claiming “Our stories get picked up in the echo chamber of the media,” he said. “And readers comment on our stories.” Note the weasel words. Do your stories get picked up more or less? I’ll say that, pre-paywall, I quite frequently was sent to articles from The Times, and quite frequently linked to them. Since the paywall has gone up, there hasn’t been a single time that someone has referred me to a story in The Times. Not once. And the fact that some readers comment again is not an indication that you’re really a part of the conversation. How many sites are actually linking to stories? How much external traffic is being driven to the site? How many of those folks are converting. All of these things are numbers that actually mean something, and News Corp. seems silent on them… which is telling, as well.
Anyway, the announcement (of course) quotes James Murdoch saying how great these numbers are (what else is he going to say?). In a bit of interesting timing, next week, I’m actually going to be attending the Monaco Media Forum, where he’s one of the co-chairs and will be giving a talk. I’m not yet sure if his talk is on-the-record (some are apparently not), but I’ll see if I can pin him down on some of these numbers.