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Yesterday, the Telegraph announced the introduction of  a 'metered paywall' which allows visitors to read up to 20 articles before having to subscribe for more.

There are two options: a 'web pack' which allows access to the website and content via apps at £1.99 per month, and a 'digital pack' which adds tablet access and loyalty club membership at £9.99 per month. 

But can a paywall ever be a good idea for a general news site like The Telegraph though? And how will it affect the newspaper in terms of SEO and traffic to its ecommerce pages? 

Can the Telegraph emulate the FT model? 

The FT has a similar metered model, and this seems (from the outside at least) to be working for the company. 

According to recent stats, FT.com increased its digital subscriber numbers by 18% in the year to 31 December 2012, to almost 316,000, bringing the total circulation of the Financial Times to 602,000.

In addition, FT Group reported sales of £443m, up 4% on 2011. Annual sales revenue up was up 5% to £6.1m.

However, FT.com offers specialist information for subscribers on a range of formats, and can charge far more than The Telegraph is attempting to, with subscriptions starting at £295 per year. 

The problem is, The Telegraph has less of a USP as it cannot offer the same specialist content as the FT.

Can paywalls ever work for mainstream news sites? 

News International has been relatively coy about its digital subscriber numbers, but it seems that its traffic has been severely affected since the pay barrier was introduced. 

ABC figures are no longer available for the title, but stats from the NRS PADD survey suggest that just 675,000 people are reading The Times online, with 7.9m reading the print version. The same figures, from November 2012, give The Telegraph almost 6m online readers. 

Perhaps 675,000 digital subscribers (if there are that many) is enough for the newspaper to consider the paywall success but, in the absence of figures, this is guesswork. 

However, the key problem may be the willingness of people to pay for the kind of content they can get on several free news sites already. The FT's model works because it offers specialist content and has no obvious free rival, but this is not the case for The Telegraph. 

While £1.99 per month isn't a lot to pay, web users have been conditioned to expect things for free, especially general news content. This is the hurdle that The Telegraph has to overcome. 

How about SEO and ecommerce? 

With a paywall, there is a risk that, as pages are hidden behind these barriers, the search engines aren't indexing them, and rankings could fall.

This doesn't necessarily have to be a problem, and the metered model adopted by the Telegraph should be less harmful than the stricter version as used by The Times. 

Here, we can see that FT.com gets around this problem and its articles are indexed by Google:

According to Search Laboratory's Head of SEO Jimmy McCann:

If done in the right way then it (a paywall) shouldn't be a problem for search engines. FT.com is a good example of doing it properly - I think they use a cookie based system so as a search engine cookies aren’t applicable.

Paywalled content could also use user agent detection to serve a search engine the full content and a human another though this is very risky, as it can look like cloaking.

However, The Times is likely to be missing out, as it only shows the first couple of paragraphs, meaning less content for the search engines to index:

So, in this respect, the metered paywall is the better option, as it should minimise any potential SEO losses. 

However, metered paywall or not, people will be less likely to share articles on social media or link to the Telegraph's content, as many won't want to send readers straight to a paywall. 

Then there is the problem of The Telegraph's ecommerce pages, which rely in part on the traffic sent by its editorial content, and on the search rankings that content brings. 

For example, The Telegraph has holiday deals which are linked to via the sites travel section, and it's possible that the newspaper's ability to promote and sell these deals will be adversely affected by any restrictions on access. 

Is there anything to be said for The Telegraph paywall? 

It could just be that the metered approach may preserve enough of The Telegraph's traffic while ensuring that enough of the paper's 'dedicated' online readership are encouraged to subscribe.

Martin Belam makes an excellent point on his blog:  

The (Telegraph's) numbers will almost certainly say that the average number of pages viewed per user per month is between one and five, or something of that magnitude. The only people who will get caught up in the twenty articles a month bracket are super-users and loyalists, who may be tempted to add a print subscription into their package, and can certainly be marketed in that direction over the coming months.

So, perhaps the Telegraph has done the maths on this issue. Indeed, according to Peter Preston in The Guardian, when it added the same paywall for international users, only one in ten users failed to sign up for the charge. 

If true, this bodes well for the newspaper's strategy, though there may well be a big difference between the international and UK audiences. 

According to Alex Moss of Firecask:

Paywalls have a negative effect on SEO. Pages are still indexed with the title and there can be (as The Times do) have some introductory content. However, this is not enough to make these pages rank as well as a full article from a competitor. However, ranking doesn't indicate ROI, and this is really what it boils down to.

Providing free content is great and will help rankings, but is there a value in that? Paywalls are clearly a strategic decision that cannot be taken lightly. The advantage for The Telegraph is that it already has an established reputation  and some of the current readers will use this paywalled service. This return may actually be more beneficial than ranking in the first place. Providing free content is great but it is clearly coming at a cost.

Conclusion

Only time will tell if this strategy works for The Telegraph. For me, when there are so many free news sources out there, the average newspaper site's content may not be compelling enough to attract any more than the loyalists as subscribers. Consequently, traffic and ad revenies are likely to drop as a result. 

I also think that newspapers should consider other monetisation options, such as affliate links and ecommerce add-ons, as well as evaluating the value of 'open' pages, before they head down the paywall route.

However, it could be that The Telegraph has made these calculations, concluded that it cannot grow traffic any further and that the ad-funded model isn't working for them.

As reported today in Marketing Week, The Sun is planning its own paywall later this year, to coincide with the launch of its Premier League highlights package.

Perhaps this will be a compelling enough propisition to encourage digital subscriptions, but it also suggests that News International doesn't believe people will subscribe for news alone. 

If, as Martin Belam suggests, the paywall doesn't kick in for the majority of visitors, while super users sign up (and £1.99 per month isn't such a steep price) then it may be able to find a balance betwen free and paid content. 

What do you think? Is this a smart move by The Telegraph, or a desparate throw of the dice? 

Graham Charlton

Published 27 March, 2013 by Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton is the former Editor-in-Chief at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter or connect via Linkedin or Google+

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Comments (15)

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James Perrin

James Perrin, Digital Communications Specialist at Feefo

Hi Graham, interesting post.

I think the fact that pay-walls have not been adopted by more newspapers is a telling sign that they are unsure whether this is the route to go down. As you said at the start, the reason it works for the FT is because they offer a niche. If The Telegraph were to add significant value to the content, much more so than within your average online article, then it may work.

I also agree with Alex Moss, they will lose lots of traffic as similar stories will be covered by other online publications, unless of course The Telegraph are able to offer a great deal more to the story. Only time will tell, but I think if it was a viable option, it would have been adopted by more newspapers.

Great post.

about 3 years ago

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Mark Wilderspin

I hate to think that we have seemingly reached an age where the issue of SEO rankings means that all content needs to be made available for free.

If you're a startup that may well be true until your brand becomes established but The Telegraph?...

about 3 years ago

Helen Trendell

Helen Trendell, Managing Director at ThoughtShift

Great post on a debate that has had the wind up publishers' sails for years now.

I think if the Telegraph can pull it off then other publishers will be clammering to adopt this model.

People have proven that they're happy to pay for the content they want to read and this content monetisation strategy does have a certain chi about it. Just like in any business, the most engaged customers are likely to be only a small proportion of your total readership so giving them more added value and charging them for the bells and whistles service makes sense.

about 3 years ago

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Francesca Baker

I think it is an excellent idea to get people 'lured' in. People may not be willing to pay for news, but they will pay for quality content and well written features.Trouble is that there may not be enough of them to fund a sustainable business model...

about 3 years ago

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Yvonne Chien, Head of Digital at Abcam

Really useful article. James is going in the right direction with his comments - it boils down to the perceived value of the content. If the readers feel the content adds value to their lives, over and above the many similar, free source(s), then people will pay. The pain will be felt most when they move away from free, where they will find out that many readers do not value them (as happened with The Times). Personally, I will simply exclude them from my Google News feed and just from reading comments sections, I get the feeling loyalty is not very high among Telegraph readers - constantly raising the pointlessness of the articles ("this is not news", "what's the point of this article", "what a silly journalist", etc). I think long-term, more newspapers will move towards this model and correspondingly general news content will become more niche as people turn towards other information sources, both free and higher-quality but paid-for niche. I would be interested to see some analysis of what happens after they switch this on - in terms of their rankings and their traffic.

about 3 years ago

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Gino Magnotta

Its not really about being a "smart" move. In reality, it is the "only" move. They have no alternative but to introduce a subscription model. Bitter experience has established that ad and affiliate revenues simply do not translate from print to online anywhere near a 1 to 1 basis, even with millions of users (infact an oft quoted US study (Pew) suggests that $7 lost in print only gains $1 online). Legacy overheads still exist, with the result culminating in the fact that vast majority of general interest newspapers being loss making entities or in profit declines. They have to do something. Urgently!

They are perhaps taking some solace from the US. There, the trend for pay hurdles (as opposed to paywalls) is on the rise after qualified success with the New York Times with their 600+k subscribers. "Success" shouldn't limited to looking at the number of subscribers alone however. It should be assessed on whether subscriptions plug the gaping decline in revenues overall, thereby preserving editorial investment. The FT is always quoted as an example of success. As alluded above not only are they "big niche" but a large chunk of their subscribers are employer funded. In other words, they are as much of a B2B business as well as B2C. Their relevance to generalist news is limited.

I suspect that the subscription model, if done properly, will be net positive to newspapers like the Telegraph. However it wont be enough to reverse their fortunes. They are not going to be growth companies all of a sudden. The most successful ones will have transitioned to a stable digital platform engaging with a loyal but much smaller audience. They will also become significantly smaller businesses and the question is whether they can keep investing in more unique, quality content that a paying online audience demands.

about 3 years ago

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Simon Burslem, Marketing Manager at SiteVisibility

Great post Graham.

With online readership growing and traditional sales slowing newspapers have to find a way to to sell in an ever increasing digital world. What James said is certainly very true about perceived value, but is this model the only feasible one moving forward?

about 3 years ago

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Jo Burns, Head of Ecommerce at Guardian News & Media

Very interesting piece. I run the retail ecommerce sites at the Guardian, so interested to see what our esteemed competitors are doing. I would suspect they get as many visitors to their ecommerce sites from readers typing in the url as featured on their print ads or entering 'Telegraph Offers' into a search engine as they do from direct editorial taggings/links, so not sure this will have a massively detrimental effect

They also do a lot of insert activity as well (which probably reflects their demographic) I also suspect that their core audience don't do a lot of sharing on social media.....

about 3 years ago

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Deri Jones, CEO at SciVisum.co.uk

It's one of those areas, where management have to make the tough calls!

No one can know for sure what will happen for the Telegraph: they are sufficiently different to the FT and The Times and to the Guardian's international readeship; and anyway: statistically it'd be wrong to draw conclusions from such a small set.

It's a step in the dark.

Chatting to some web performance guys from News International last week, they were saying that the balance of power internally is moving to the online teams and away from the paper teams.

I wonder if having online subscription money now tangible, gives online more visibility with the board.

The newspaper industry may be one of the last sectors to face up to the new realities of the online world. Some would say they have had their head in the sand for a long time!

But this week, the Telegraph management have made their (brave) decision - we're all watching with bated breath!

about 3 years ago

Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton, Editor in Chief at ClickZ Global

@Christian Thanks - is that how visitors find The Guardian's ecommerce pages?

I would say that, if they are doing their job properly, The Telegraph and other content-rich news sites should be able to rank well for their target keywords.

I see that the Guardian is ranking well for terms such as 'Paris city break' so perhaps you're doing a better job of this...

about 3 years ago

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Karen Canty, Head of News, Future Foundation

The Times got lambasted when it set up paywalls but the writing was on the wall then - everyone would have to follow suit at some point and The Times was just the first to dip its toe in the water. I am surprised it has taken this long, to be hones.

I also think that the fact that a behaviour is established - in this case, consumers getting content for free - doesn't mean that it can't be changed. The key to success for print media in future will be to provide the quality, indepth commentary and journalistic expertise that you just don't get with the freesheets or the mass online media. As far as I am concerned, the Telegraph has the capacity to deliver against this and offer its online subscribers the depth and quality they expect (and would be happy to pay for). The Sun - well, not so much....!

The one big issue that media haven't addressed properly is social sharing. The ability to share what you're reading online is about so much more than just sharing news - it's about social capital, influence, how you want other people to see/ perceive you and much more. Denying people access to that will just push them to other titles. That's a big challenge for media owners.

about 3 years ago

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Jo Burns, Head of Ecommerce at Guardian News & Media

Graham, we get our traffic via a mix of channels:- direct, referral, search, email, social and mobile is becoming increasingly important. A lot of our sites are white labels so there is always an underlying problem with duplicate content as featured on 'parent' site but we try and get round this by customising copy as much as possible to try and maximise search rankings.

My counterparts in travel are very good at keyword linking marketing widgets with relevant editorial content and I do a lot of this for our financial services (nothing like an article on energy prices rises to drive someone to our utilities switching service!) but we don't always know when relevant stories are being published.

I'm guessing we may see more content produced to hang marketing on, but there has to be absolute clarity when this is the case, as journalists need to protect their editorial integrity. It will be interesting to see who goes down this route

about 3 years ago

Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton, Editor in Chief at ClickZ Global

@Christian I see your problem if there is no co-operation between editorial and commerce.

It's a tricky one, but the way I see it, news sites need to maximise income how they can, and this doesn't necessarily have to compromise editorial integrity.

We have a 'church and state' thing with blog and commercial, but we do have reports and event tickets to sell, so we use the blog to promote relevant paid content in a way that is hopefully useful to readers.

about 3 years ago

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Andy Green

I was until yesterday a so called super user of the telegraph, I used up my 20 free articles in one afternoon. I shall not however be taking up a subscription. I used the website as my news provider of choice, but that was mainly because I was familiar with the layout and I only want one news source not several. I changed to the telegraph when the bbc changed their layout and I did not like it. Also the telegraph allowed you to get the desktop version on your smart phone tablet. I can't stand mobile/tablet site formats, in fact I have no idea why they exist anymore mobile formats where useful before smartphones ability to offer desktop site layout.

I did share a lot of stories via social media. However as of yesterday I have not visited the telegraph site there is nothing exceptional about the content that I am willing to pay for when there are free alternatives.

I suspect this will be the view of many users. Good luck to them but I will not subscribe and I doubt the price will stay at £1.99, asi doubt there will be enough subscribers at that price to offset the loss of revenue from adverts and e-commerce sales due to loss of traffic.

about 3 years ago

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Tom

It’s a very interesting topic in general.

On one hand, I think it’s quite sad the people expect things like quality journalism for free. While rags like The Sun are not worth paying anything for, the output from The Times, Guardian and Telegraph is worth it, but how much?

Having recently taken the plunge with an ipad (get me), I’ve been looking into the various price plans and they all seem overly complicated and just a bit too expensive. I find it odd that when so many people use several devices (and sync between them), all of the papers with paid for content offer separate online, phone and tablet pricing – surely one payment to get access across all devices is the way forward?

With the Guardian ipad app, you have to pay a monthly fee (it’s not possible to buy a single issue), but as the website is still free, all you are paying for is the automatic download in the morning, and however convenient that is, it’s not worth £12 a month. Especially when on top of that, you need to pay £10 for phone access.

I use spotify all day everyday, so I don’t begrudge the £10 monthly fee and would probably go higher. However with newspapers, I can only really look on my way too/from work, lunchtimes and during weekend morning lie ins, so I think a fee of c£5 a month for multi-device access per paper is much fairer and will bring in huge numbers of subscribers.

I think another unforeseen consequence of paywalls is that more and more people will start getting their news from one source, which is a shame as fewer and fewer people will have a rounded view of the world.

about 3 years ago

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