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U.K. Times Website Paywall Kills Two-Thirds of Visitor Traffic

The U.K. Times

The U.K.'s Times is among the vanguard of companies erecting paywalls around the websites of old-world news publications. It's a bold move. Now some early stats are out to reveal how poorly it's working.

The figures popped up on Beehive City, sourced at a former Times media correspondent, which adds a little credence to the data. And though the data is sparse, it's telling. Here are the headline numbers.

  • Registrations from readers during the free trial window: 150,000
  • Paying subscribers among these readers: 15,000
  • iPad app downloads: 12,500

As noted over at PaidContent, this means that the Times converted a mere 12% of its pre-paywall daily viewing audience into signed-up members during the free trial period—a figure that seems horribly low. It gets worse when you do the math to reveal that a mere tenth of these folks then elected to pay for content. In other words, 1.2% of the Times' pre-firewall audience have signed up to pay for it's newly closed-off news material. That's not a success in anyone's book—particularly if you consider what a meager pile of money this will have resulted in, compared to the ad revenues that could have been achieved by serving Net ads to the bigger audience.

But there's another stat that is actually more confusing, even while at first blush you'd think it had obvious implications: Though the paywall was free for a month, it ditched overall site visit figures by 58% during this period—merely having to sign up (for no fee) was enough of a barrier to shoo away many visitors. In the first week of payment-only access, this figure rose to 67%. In other words, the Times' grand experiment has resulted in a loss of two thirds of the number of public eyeballs viewing the site's prized news content. That seems disastrous. Or at least it would if the paper didn't have the subscription model running to deliver continuous income from loyal customers.

U.K. Times paywall signup page

Is the drop in site traffic offset by this regular cash, though? It's almost impossible to guess at this stage—but it would seem unlikely that the Times' is pulling in more money overall, after this change. We can imagine that it is achieving comparable income, but to really know we'd need comment from the paper itself (which isn't forthcoming at this time) or other more circumstantial evidence that the Times' is either trying austerity measures, abandoning the paywall experiment in favor of a better system, or raking the cash in.

There is one conclusion we can draw, though: The public doesn't like paywalls. At all. It may not be a surprise to those familiar with the workings of the modern Net news systems, and who've seen the business model rapidly evolved thanks to innovations by the "new media" industry. But it's a hard statistic, and it's a sign that old-world newspapers with a smaller reputation than the Times will have a very difficult time converting their business into a paid-content model. Adding in news reports like this one from the weekend's The New York Times about how hard young journalists are finding the switch to a more real-time Web-writing mode, the future for traditional-media news organizations on the Web is looking trickier and trickier. Will we see an even bigger revolution than the paywall appear in the business before too long? If the Times' lack of paywall success is indicative of the future, it seems inevitable.

To keep up with this news, follow me, Kit Eaton, on Twitter.