How the NYT paywall could turn out to be a success
There’s one aspect of the NYT paywall which hasn’t got as much attention as it deserves — and that’s the idea that the NYT will be able to charge higher CPMs for ads behind the paywall than it currently gets for ads on a free site. Gordon Crovitz, the former publisher of the WSJ who now has a paywall product of his own, points out that if people pay for a subscription, that’s an excellent indicator of the “engagement” that advertisers and agencies are looking for. As a result, he says, publishers can charge a CPM premium of about 30% for behind-the-paywall pageviews.
Of course, it’s hard to know whether the NYT can get that kind of premium. At the NYT, after all, most behind-the-paywall pageviews will come from people who aren’t paying for a digital subscription: either they’re print subscribers who get access to the website thrown in for free, or else they’re online-only readers who have taken advantage of the Lincoln offer. Do people who get free access behind the paywall count as “engaged” from an advertiser’s perspective? I’m sure the NYT sales team will do its best to persuade media buyers that they are.
What’s more, if those people are told clearly that they’re getting something worth hundreds of dollars for free, then they might end up using it more. So even if CPMs behind the paywall don’t go up a lot, it’s reasonable to assume that readers with a get-past-the-paywall pass will end up reading more NYT stories than they have done up till now.
Against that, of course, is a certain drop-off in traffic from readers who don’t want to pay for access, who haven’t taken advantage of the Lincoln offer for whatever reason, and who have no desire to engage in clever tricks any time they want to read a NYT story.
It’s all a lot of swings and roundabouts, but think about it this way: let’s say that 2 million web denizens have access behind the paywall, by the time that the NYT is done with its introductory offers, multiple accounts for home-delivery family members, and the like. I’m running about 150 articles a month, but I’m a heavy user; let’s assume that on average those 2 million people read 75 articles per month. That’s 150 million articles per month, and with some articles containing multiple pages, let’s call it 200 million pageviews per month, or 2.5 billion pageviews per year.
How much extra money could the NYT get from those 2.5 billion behind-the-paywall pageviews? If it manages to raise its revenue per thousand pages (RPM) by $10 for pages behind the paywall, then we’re talking about an extra $25 million in ad revenue — which compares to total digital ad revenues running north of $300 million per year.
It’s a big if, of course — the digital account for the family 9-year-old is a nice perk to keep the print subscription coming, but it’s not going to attract a lot of advertisers. But if the NYT can make the sale, then that $25 million could go a long way to helping to make up for any reduction in total pageviews which comes from introducing the paywall. At that point, the subscription revenues don’t need to offset a decline in ad revenues: they just need to pay for the cost of building the paywall in the first place, help to diversify the NYT’s income streams, and encourage readers to buy the NYT in its highly-profitable print form.
The point here is that the paywall is responsible for multiple revenue streams, not just its own narrow subscription revenues. It will drive marginal readers to the print product, especially at weekends — and thereby shore up or even increase print-ad revenues from the weekend paper. It will dissuade current print subscribers from dropping the paper on the grounds that they can get all the same content for free online. It will allow the digital ad-sales team to charge a premium for readers who have access behind the paywall. And, as we’ve already seen, it will allow deals where advertisers like Lincoln pay good money to sponsor that access.
Add them all up, and I’m beginning to come around to the idea that the paywall can make good financial sense — if everything goes according to plan. This is a complex system, and therefore prone to misunderstandings and mistakes: there have been predictable glitches in Canada already, and I was talking to one NYT staffer on Monday who was convinced that all of the blogs were free, rather than just the “blog fronts“. But over time I suspect that the NYT will manage to simplify both the system and the messaging, which Ken Doctor points out has proven rather tough and unfriendly at launch.
The NYT will surely proclaim the paywall to be a success no matter what happens. But if total pageviews don’t fall and digital advertising revenues increase, then it’s going to be pretty hard to make the case that the paywall was a bad idea.
If the paywall does succeed, I’ll be very happy indeed to have been proven wrong — the NYT is a great newspaper, and it deserves some financial good fortune. It’s a real possibility; let’s hope it becomes a reality.