Posted by: structureofnews | November 3, 2010

Lies, Damned Lies, And…

The Times of London announces that it has 105,000 paying customers to its digital editions since it started charging for access this summer – a number that’s either encouraging or dismal, depending on which side of the paid/free content side of the ideological debates you’re on.  And proving once more that there’s lies, damned lies, and circulation statistics.

Robert Andrew at Paid Content dissects the numbers, including pointing out that the numbers are cumulative totals for four months and that they include all digital products – such as the iPad and Kindle – and not just the website.  So those numbers may not be as much as they seem.   Still, the Times says about half – 50,000 – are monthly subscribers, which could mean they’re bringing in 400,000 pounds a month now.   Not small potatoes.

The big question, to us on the outside, is whether the reduction in advertising-exposed eyeballs associated with a traffic drop of this scale is, or will, being made up by paying customers. But we didn’t even know how much News International was making from digital before the switch; the publisher doesn’t break it out.

And he makes a broader, more important point:

Accepting that sustainable revenue – and not sky-high audience figures – are now the metric on which to judge, then the small subscriptions base at least offers hope of recurring customer income.

The metrics do change, and perhaps substantially.  It’s not just whether subscription revenue can substitute for online ad revenue (perhaps) or for print ad revenue (unlikely); it’s that it’s a different kind of revenue, and a different kind of model.

For one thing, subscription revenue is steady.  It’s hard to get subscribers, but when you get them, you tend to get a regular, continuing stream of income on a fairly predictable basis.

You get – or should get – more information about your readers/users.  That matters not only in terms of getting higher ad rates, but in terms of building a better relationship with them, and hopefully developing other products that they might want, or in being able to extract more revenue out of them.

You think about your product differently.  Or you should.  Rather than chasing traffic, you start thinking more about your subscription base (or potential subscription base) and what they might want.  You might start segmenting them into thinner slices, or you might want to broaden out a tad to bring in a large potential pool of readers just outside your core group.

Freesheets are run differently from premium newsletters – and so free sites should be from paid sites.  Whether the Times will be successful at it is another question, but as Paid Content notes, it’s a philosophical shift.  And as more sites go paid – or hybrid, ala the FT or WSJ – we might expect to see the online experience change as well.

Finally, I can’t help but note that the New York Times, which also plans to start putting some its content behind a wall, notes somewhat churlishly in its story about the Times of London that

The conventional wisdom among media analysts has been that it will be difficult to persuade readers to pay for general news online, given the panoply of free news available on the Web.

But, some specialty publications in areas like business and finance have had modest success with paid access.

It points to the FT, which has 189,000 paying customers as an example of said modest success.  But it omits to mention wsj.com, which at last count had more than a million subscribers signed up.  Modest success, indeed.


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