Media: Times Online focuses on quality

The PR industry has been gripped by, and divided over, The Times Online's paywall since its introduction in July.

Commentators from all corners of the industry have aired their differing views on News International's big experiment in charging for online content.

Early results following the launch suggest that readers have been shying away from paying for news. Traffic to The Times newspaper's website has dropped by just under one third since the paywall was introduced, according to research by the analyst ComScore.

The number of unique visitors fell by 27 per cent to 1.61 million in July, from 2.2 million in June and 2.79 million the month before.

Despite the fall in visitors, Times Digital director Gurtej Sandhu says the numbers are not surprising and all is on track: 'We are happy where we are. We are seeing good progress and we are developing what we are doing on the site. It's in line with targets.'

For Gurtej, the introduction of the paywall has meant a renewed focus on developing the online offering. While some media outlets would swear exclusivity is key, Gurtej claims he is looking for multi-dimensional content instead.

Digital PR specialist Tinderbox Media recently held a live Q&A session with law firm client Stowe Family Law on the money section of The Times Online. Readers submitted questions in advance and during the live session. MD Karyn Fleeting said that despite the paywall, the Q&A was 'bombarded' with queries.

'The questions were all intelligent and considered. This suggests the revised readership following the paywall has meant more quality of readers than quantity.'

However, the introduction of the paywall has presented PROs with challenges. Issues with SEO and not being able to share articles as freely has posed problems.

'Given that The Times Online is now partially hidden from Google, and articles can't be shared, it's going to affect the number of people who want to contribute,' says 10 Yetis account director Rich Leigh.

Meanwhile, Bell Pottinger Group head of issues and crisis management Alex Woolfall adds: 'As we do more work for clients on digital reputation management, we are faced with a choice of targeting media outlets that will rank high on Google results and those that won't. Clients are questioning whether doing an interview or exclusive with The Times is as valuable as offering it to The Daily Telegraph, when the former will only be seen by people who buy the paper, then hidden from view on the internet thereafter.'

However, despite the new challenges, PR professionals still believe The Times Online can still play an important part in reaching desired audiences. Leigh says: 'Despite the lower number of eyeballs on our client names, we'd pitch to a relevant blog with a small readership, so we shouldn't treat The Times Online differently.'


Unique users 1.61 million (source: ComScore)

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A minute with ... Gurtej Sandhu, director, Times Digital

- How does the online audience compare with the newspaper's readers?

There is a younger audience online. They are also more urbanite.

- How has the site changed since the paywall?

There's more engagement with blogs and comments on articles. We are strong on multi-dimensional content. Video is more important as are multiple picture galleries. That's more in tune with storytelling for a younger audience.

- How is the content different online from what is in the paper?

Fundamentally the core of the content doesn't change, but how we tell the story has evolved. We are no longer as focused on page impressions. Subscribers and level of engagement are more important. Getting a reader to watch a video is more important than clicking on several pages. We are now considering emailing story updates to people directly, which we wouldn't have done previously because we would have wanted the page impressions.

- How can PROs provide more content?

PR professionals should be sending in video clips and 3D images along with press releases. The key thing about PR is that it helps evolve stories. Great PR is great copy. The package sent through needs to include multi-dimensional content.

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