Media Forum: Has The Times hit its target?

Will its online pay-wall figures excite advertisers, Alasdair Reid asks.

What fun. Some sources at rival newspaper groups were tempted to go to town on the The Times' first pay-wall results, released last week. And you can certainly see where they were coming from - because News International's figures seemed to become more flaccid the more we stared at them.

In its headline statement, The Times stated that it had induced 200,000 to pay for digital delivery of The Times since the pay-wall had been erected in July. But then it owned up to creative accounting involving dual print and digital subscriptions - and that the digital-only figure was around 105,000.

And then they invited us to strip out those who had downloaded digital (but not online) versions of the paper for their iPads. And those who'd been trialling the £1 day pass. Leaving around 50,000 who have paid monthly subscriptions.

One hundred per cent of joint subscriptions are UK-only - but that figure drops to 75 per cent for other users and this ratio is clearly an issue for UK advertisers.

When The Times was available for free online, its total customer base was just over three million. Some rival publishers had been reckoning that if, following the imposition of the pay-wall, it managed to retain 10 per cent of that audience, then the initiative would have to be judged a thumping - and, indeed, astonishing - success.

Against that test, these figures fail whatever way you look at them. But any crowing by rivals tends to ring hollow too. There are those who have been privately wagering their jobs, houses and reputations on the numbers being considerably worse than this.

Meanwhile, James Murdoch, News Corporation's chairman and chief executive for Europe and Asia, has been pointing out that the paper's total paid circulation (the combined digital and print sales) could now be said to be on an upward trend. And the NI chief executive, Rebekah Brooks, comparing the new model with the old free online model, said that digital subscribers are "more valuable to us than very many unique users of the previous model".

She may well have a point - but are these numbers likely to excite advertisers too? Will Orr, the communications director of British Gas, says he has to reserve judgment until there's more robust data available. He adds: "We want to understand precisely who is viewing, with which areas of the site they are engaging and for how long. The figures that have been released so far don't give us that detail."

On the other hand, he concedes: "The headline numbers do, on the face of it, indicate that there might be a market for paid-for, digital news content, particularly for consumption through mobile devices."

John Baylon, the group digital trading director at Starcom, tends to agree - he's disappointed in the lack of clarity behind the numbers. He explains: "News International has certainly been brave - and I wholeheartedly applaud it for such a pioneering move. But my belief is, if you're going to be brave, show you're brave. Why come out with such foggy numbers? Why not say they are low but are as expected and we expect them to grow?

"It has a huge task in demonstrating to consumers there is real value in paying to access its content. But if it works, then it will have stolen an advantage over the rest of the market, as all first movers do."

Will Smyth, OMD UK's head of digital, can't help feeling that NI will be disappointed with these numbers. He says: "If, previously, it had 3.2 million (digital) users a month and now has between 50,000 and 100,000, then that's a pretty substantial difference. The figures are not exactly compelling - advertisers will struggle to be excited by this. But I'm sure NI will continue to market it and the numbers will no doubt grow. Obviously, everything would change if other newspapers followed suit and put up pay-walls of their own."

And, anyway, Simon Davis, the Walker Media managing director, argues, at this stage NI's first concern probably isn't whether advertisers are impressed or not. He says: "Its strategy is to monetise its content through subscription and I'd imagine any ad revenues will be considered a bonus until some scale is achieved. At current subscription levels, the platforms are unattractive to the majority of advertisers. From a longer-term strategic viewpoint, though, it looks like the right investment to make.

"A model in which expensive content is given away to consumers online but paid for in papers is unsustainable, and if the new model guarantees good-quality content for advertisers going forward, then that's a good thing."

MAYBE - Will Orr, communications director, British Gas

"Until we have sight of more mature and robust data, it is too early to tell. I hope it is a success. Trying to develop an audience of more engaged users who see a value in the content seems to be the right ambition."

YES - John Baylon, group digital trading director, Starcom

"The numbers were always going to be low in the first four months of this new model. It's still early days. This is a painful path NI has decided to tread and it will not be a success in the short to medium term."

MAYBE - Will Smyth, head of digital, OMD UK

"The figures are disconcertingly vague - and advertisers will struggle to be excited by the conversion rate so far. But I'm still of the view that you have to respect the fact that NI has gone ahead and done this - and the numbers will no doubt grow."

MAYBE - Simon Davis, managing director, Walker Media

"NI is obviously taking a big financial hit in the short term. But these losses will narrow as subscriptions increase and scale can be delivered to advertisers - and perhaps subscribers can be upsold additional global NI digital products."

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