The Times paywall numbers: what counts for what

By bundling together different varieties of consumers of the digital versions of The Times and the Sunday Times which might usefully have been kept separate, the two papers managed to squeeze a headline figure – 105,000 – just into six figures.

That number is for “customer sales” for the past four months. As a method of   reporting this doesn’t even begin to be convincing. Any business journalist on either title confronted with this sort of chicanery from another company in the online market would gleefully rip into the executives releasing numbers in such opaque form. But it’s not very likely that News International will be getting that treatment in the pages of either paper.

The best analysis I’ve seen so far has been from Rob Andrews of PaidContent and Ian Burrell of The Independent. The most detailed working of the figures is here. Burrell defiantly continues the quixotic old-fashioned practice of actually ringing up experts and recording what they say.

Six quick observations to help interpret the interpretations:

  • The snap soundbite (figures gone from figure 13 times larger than print to one 30 times smaller) is off the point. Nobody ever contested that the numbers would shrivel. The issue is does the smaller number have value, potential or actual?
  • We still don’t know very much. I suspect that the key reason for the fuzziness of the figures is that the number of people taking the £1 a week introductory offer is embarassingly high too long after launch. This group of people, who won’t convert to regular subs, are the target of indulgent bribery in the form of perks and offers designed to make them subscribers.
  • Above all, we don’t know about the “churn” rate. How many people are renewing and for how long?
  • But what the papers have started to build is a database of their readers preferences. It’s very small but it has to start somewhere. But building it to the size at which that database starts to get interesting to advertisers is going to cost. (Update 11/11/10: the argument for growing something different from a small base is put here by News International’s marketing director Katie Vanneck).
  • I still believe that the pivot of the paywall issue isn’t money and numbers but links. Times editor James Harding doesn’t think that his columnists feel cut off behind the payall. I’m not so sure.
  • A prediction: in a year or two, paywall knowledge and software will have advanced so far that we will look back to this point and marvel that anything as crude as a fixed-price, 100% paywall was even thought of.

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