Assessing the Globe’s paywall numbers

February 21, 2013  |  David Brown and David Thomas  |  Comments

Phillip Crawley

In October, The Globe and Mail joined a growing group of newspapers putting up website paywalls; today the paper released encouraging numbers on the impact of charging readers for digital access.

In the four months since The Globe and Mail put up its paywall, page views have dropped between 10% and 15% – though there has been no appreciable impact on daily unique visits – and 80,000 digital subscribers have signed up. The upshot is new revenue from digital subscriptions – though it’s unclear just how much – with no negative impact on digital advertising revenue, according to executives at the Globe who spoke with Marketing Thursday morning.

“We’re pleased with the progress to date,” said publisher Phillip Crawley. “We are certainly ahead of our own forecasts to this point.”

A digital subscription with the newspaper, what it calls “Globe Unlimited,” costs $19.99 a month, though print subscribers get a free digital subscription and the Globe did not say how many of those 80,000 subscribers were existing print subscribers as opposed to new revenue from digital subscribers.

“We are certainly seeing a lot of people who are not print subscribers, sign up,” said Crawley.

Crawley also said the paper has also seen an increase in print subscriptions since Unlimited was launched.

To encourage trials of  Globe Unlimited, one-month trials cost just 99 cents. Of those 80,000 subscribers, approximately 10,000 are on a one-month trial. The paper has been converting trial subscriptions to full subscriptions at a 90% rate.

The numbers – which will seem like good news for Canada’s largest national newspaper – were shared with staff at the newspaper this morning.

Each of Canada’s four big newspapers players – the Globe, Postmedia, Torstar and Sun Media – have or soon will have some sort of paywall that restricts access to content.

Though there are some who maintain the paywall model is destined for failure with so much content available for free online, others see it as salvation for traditional print media outlets ravaged by plummeting print ad sales since the financial collapse in late 2008.

The trend has been picking up steam since the New York Times put up its paywall in March 2011 with positive results (though even here, people will disagree).

The suggestion that a paywall will hurt digital ad revenue by reducing traffic appears to be refuted by the Globe’s numbers so far.

“There has been no impact at all on the advertising market,” said Andrew Saunders, vice-president advertising sales.

The daily unique visits have held flat  at about 4 million in January, said Saunders, because casual readers can still visit the site up to 10 times per month before hitting the wall. And some content, like video, remains outside the paywall. So on days when big news breaks (like a meteor exploding and crashing in Russia) the site will generate big non-subscriber visits by posting video of said meteor crashing into Russia.

What is also clear from the four months of data is that online subscribers are voracious consumers of Globe and Mail content – “addicts,” Crawley calls them – spending 180% more time with Globe and Mail content than non-subscribers. In cases where paywalls have not produced positive numbers it’s because, “the content is just not good enough,” said Crawley.

For Globe subscribers, said Crawley, “the content is worthy of the charge.” However, he also said the Globe has made a concerted effort to improve the quality of its online offering and changed the culture of the newsroom to ensure content is being published constantly instead of to the traditional daily newspaper schedule.

Well-known columnist Doug Saunders was brought back from London to become digital comment editor, for example, to take a new position of digital comment editor.

“We are not trying to compete with commodity news which exists everywhere else,” said Crawley.

Requiring subscriptions also provides a better understanding of readers and their habits, said Saunders. Demographic data can been married to behavioural data to ensure better targeting, he said, adding that unique behind-the-paywall ad formats are also in the works.

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