The whole paywall argument has resurfaced again, this time on the back of strong figures from the Financial Times online and far from transparent numbers from News International about the London Times subscription experiment.
I can see why people are looking evidence of success or failure, but I’m still not convinced that you can measure the value of content when most people are still consuming text, photos and video within today’s largely homogenous browser experience.
For that reason, don’t expect huge subscriptions to existing web sites. The Mirror Group, News International and others are trying to understand paywall models as best they can, but it won’t be possible to make a fair analysis of subscriptions and revenues much before the end of 2011.
The Guardian is taking a more interesting route. The latest version of its iPhone app, to be launched in the next couple of months will cost £2.99 for six months and £3.99 for year.
It’s a paywall by any other name, but what’s significant here is that for the time being you can still get content free on the web site and the mobile-optimised version.
In other words, the Guardian is betting that existing and new iPhone users will be happy to pay for a better experience that combines device innovation with smart presentation and curation.
Understanding the difference between content and experience is fundamental to the successful growth of subscription based news services. The equation is simple: mobile device + app + great content = paywall.
In the next year or two you’ll see hundreds of newspapers delivered via apps running on a mind-boggling range of devices that will be scraping the £150 price point. Things get even more interesting somewhere towards 2013, when we start to see subscription models based on subsidised hardware and bundled subscription channels. All this will be accelerated (or exacerbated depending on your point of view) as telcos, software and publishers grapple for ownership of the user experience.
I also think it’s foolish to discount the role of browsers (disclosure: Microsoft is a client) and that Internet Explorer and other browsers will offer a far richer media experience. No surprise that the launch literature positioned IE9 as a delivery channel for application like web-experiences.
So although the road to revenue is still long, the business models are starting to take shape. It’s going to be a long journey, but the publishers who understand the value of content and experience are the ones who will get there first.