Close-Up: Can social media promote pay-walls?

The medium is being used to persuade the public to pay for online content.

As the debate rages over whether paid-for or free online news is the future of publishing, it could have been concerning for News International to see the latest comScore figures reveal it has lost nearly one million Times online UK readers since it erected a pay-wall for the site.

During this time, the publisher's move has also been met with scepticism among many industry moguls: the Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales branded Rupert Murdoch's decision as a "foolish experiment" that "would not last", while Twitter's founder, Biz Stone, has described the action as trying to put the "genie back in the bottle".

However, despite the backlash, NI last week underlined its commitment to continue tackling the issue head-on by appointing VCCP to handle a social media campaign that it hopes will help it convince more people to join the site, and pay for the privilege.

"One of the most significant attractions for a social media campaign of this type will be that it will be able to target an online audience outside the newspaper's core readership", Maciek Gorzkowski, the head of experience at JWT, says.

He points out that while it may seem that social media is ubiquitous, it remains skewed towards 25to 35-year-olds - exactly the age group that NI needs to convince of the merits of paying for content.

"Social media is a good way to try to develop conversations with audiences that don't want to pay for content," Gorzkowski continues. "Older people are used to paying for news and so need less convincing; social media will be reaching a closer demographic to the type of people that read online news, as opposed to the ones who pay for the paper."

For many of the sceptics, NI will have to work hard in regaining their trust.

Lyndsay Menzies, the chief executive of the social media specialist Bigmouthmedia, says that by implementing the pay-wall, "The Times' online brand has lost its affiliation with many of the newspaper's previous readers", and fixing this is another benefit that social media can provide.

"Social media can help non-subscribers who might have previously considered themselves as Times readers to build up a sense of trust and belonging again, and this will help encourage them to return to the publication online," she adds.

A major part of NI and VCCP's social media strategy will be around building a community of fans, whether via Facebook, Twitter or other means, to help make them feel valued and, therefore, more willing to pay for content.

Charlie McGee, the managing director of Carat Digital, says: "The key to building relationships is creating a dialogue and that is what social media is good at doing. Consumers will feel valued if they feel the brand is listening to them, and that will encourage people to pay for content."

However, McGee affirms that social media alone won't solve the pay-wall problem. To win back audiences or reach new readers, the campaign will have to be part of a longer strategy aimed at tracking audience behaviour.

"Social media can help but it's not the answer," he says. "It is just one weapon NI can have as part of its toolkit. It's something that can add value but it has to be enhanced by other tactics, complementing any integrated advertising that the company may be running."

MEDIA SPECIALIST - John V Willshire, chief innovation officer, PHD

"With the pay-wall system, News International is experimenting with something rather than launching a finished, final solution.

"Everyone knew it'd take a big hit on readership but the absolute readership figures aren't the issue; it's whether enough people will pay to make it worthwhile for the business to keep providing the service. So what NI has got to do is spread the idea that what's behind the wall is worth having at the price it wants to charge for it.

"Doing this socially certainly makes sense: create mechanics that mean your current members bring through new ones. It's not about making The Times social per se, it's more about encouraging the subscribers to be socially vocal."

DIGITAL HEAD - Maciek Gorzkowski, head of experience, JWT

"Some people think social media is the panacea for everything. People are looking at how we can create a buzz without paying for it.

"Where social media will benefit The Times is that it will be able to create more positive conversations surrounding why consumers should pay for content online, and help drive awareness about the unique content that The Times has to offer.

"It will also be able to leverage the brand as more people become fans and, therefore, advocates."

SOCIAL MEDIA SPECIALIST - Lyndsay Menzies, chief executive, Bigmouthmedia

"News International will start regaining readers if people feel they're getting more from The Times online. It should offer niche content that gives fans something extra, such as recommended reading and tips, which can be provided by building a community around The Times through blogger outreaches, as well as through Facebook and Twitter.

"However, while this may increase short-term interest, it must be remembered that social media is not a flash in the pan - it constantly needs refreshing to engage with new audiences, so NI will need to know where it fits in as part of a longer-term strategy."

CLIENT - Jody Vogelaar, head of marketing, Times Digital & Products, News International

"The two-way dialogue between our brand and the readers brings a new dimension to a relationship, which is very important to us.

"It'll help us to understand how our products fit into readers' lives, increase frequency and engagement with the brand, and ultimately reach new audiences. It also gives our readers the chance to interact, help us innovate and shape how we deliver the product, and even engage one-on-one with our journalists on Twitter and other platforms.

"It's about using every available channel to engage with audiences and let them sample our content. We believe that once they do, the product will speak for itself."

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