So, the Times and Sunday Times websites have now retreated behind their paywalls. I've had a busy few weeks what with one thing and another so I didn't get to look around behind them much during the free trial period which is a disappointment. As I've said in previous blog posts about paywalls and this experiment, I'm fascinated to see if it will work. In many ways I hope it does because I see it as offering a far more stable financial model - which I hope will translate into better pay rates for the writers who contribute. (Am I just kidding myself here?)

But I was really struck by a problem with this approach today. @timestravel the Times travel desk's twitter stream tweeted:

Got any questions for our panel of travel writers? They're online until 1pm: http://bit.ly/awAypw

But of course this discussion was behind the paywall. Click the link and you just got a 'subscribe for access' message.

Maybe there's a new phrase I can coin here - is this the first example of 'Anti-social media'?

Unsurprisingly the tweets that followed were just a tad sarcastic:

From @alastairmck (BGTW member and travel editor):
RT @timestravel: Got any questions for our panel of travel writers? >> behind a link that goes nowhere (unless u pay)

From @DanielPearce (editor of travel industry magazine TTG:
@timestravel Well if only we didn't have to pay to join in then!!! Hope it goes well

From @maketravelfair:
Discussing how to get into travel writing... http://bit.ly/awAypw (via @timestravel) - great! but I have to pay to participate?

As Twitter and Facebook in particular have shown, Social Media is just a fantastic way to engage with new customers, to get people who don't know about you to come on board and participate. No chance of that for the Times Travel team now. They're stuck with their own walled-in population of subscribers. This to me just seems to run totally contrarily to the way Social Media is 'supposed' to work. (If you subscribe to the points of view of people like Clay Shirky et al.)

My first instinct would be to say - keep the great content like travel features and professional opinion and advice behind the paywall and use social media to point people to landing pages that are free for all to access. Reel people in with some engaging debate and hope this will encourage people to become subscribers.

But I can see the dilemma. For the very reason that social media gets people really engaged and interested in what you're up to because it's unique and compelling, it's the kind of stuff that the bean counters and marketers at the Times will want to charge people to access. In fact some might argue that it ought to be the very lifeblood of the website. Absolutely NOT something to give away for free.

So, you can follow @timestravel on twitter, but as is the case for most newspaper and magazine twitter streams their tweets are most of the time about features they themselves have published and debates and discussion on their website. So if you aren't subscribed to The Times you just click a link that dumps you in front of the 'subscribe now' screen. I wonder if as a result they will see a drop off in twitter followers? And will their tweets become nothing more than promotional messages encouraging people to 'sign up for great debate' or whatever?

Interestingly a further tweet exchange between Kevin May editor of Tnooz suggested a degree of frustration at the situation might be creeping in.

His Tweet was asking the Times Travel desk to comment on a post on Tnooz:
What say you @timestravel to this Tnooz post from @imckee http://bit.ly/bmM5Nx

The response?
"Timestravel will have a view but you will have to pay to see what it is"

Looks like absolutely nothing is free at the Times nowadays - even a quick comment on another blog post! I wonder if this is as a result of a directive on high or just a joke? A rueful acceptance that they are kind of caught between a rock and a hard place?

Personally I think for The Times to make this paywall thing work they will need to mix it up a bit and chuck some free stuff into the mix. How they do this without meaning all the best stuff leaks out from behind the paywall I don't know.

It will be so interesting to see.

What would you do if you were in their shoes?

19 thoughts on “Can social media work behind a paywall?

  1. I've written before on how I think it could work. I've also talked about why I'm not sure that going it alone will work for Murdoch.

    I'm not sure if I've ever really said whether I want Murdoch to succeed.

    Absolutely not!

    If Murdoch's paywall is a success, the others will follow and the Internet will be his plaything. If it fails, it will remain ours.

    Simples :)

  2. Nice post Jeremy.

    I don't want to be in their shoes today or tomorrow. The Times and Sunday Times (actually their owner) are in total denial and all I can think of at this time is that the readership is going to go down and down...to a point where other media (free subscription of course) will have on their title subject "Why didn't he listen to us?"

    Now here's the question: how long do you think The Times (again their owner) will make a U-Turn on that stupid strategy...

  3. By the way I forgot to mention that I pay for media but mostly for magazines. For instance I have a yearly subscription to paper magazines like WhatHIFI and Wired. So I am not saying every information should be free...

  4. Hi Jeremy.

    There's a word for this from the old AOL days: walled garden. It means that the content remains 'undistributable'.

    I'm waiting to see how much content is created by journo's citing the Times as the source but breaking the news outside for their own merits. How will the times deal with this? SUrely they won't be able to do anything to police that. Does it break a code?

    The only tactic left is for these walled gardens to employ respected writers (like you good self ;) but I'm not sure that's enough to draw the average reader in.

  5. Great to read your post about this Jeremy. It was a very brief exchange of views on Twitter earlier today (as @maketravelfair) but the topic is quite significant I think. Being asked to participate in a discussion via Twitter and then being asked to pay before you can see anything is spam in my twitter feed as far as I'm concerned.

    I understand the dilemma for the Times and I think you've explained it nicely here. My feeling is that the Times have got this wrong. These sort of live, interactive discussions are relatively new and largely a result of trends set by the development of social media so to try and put them behind a pay wall is nonsense, especially if you're seeking a diversity of opinions on a topic. There are no shortage of good media sites that I don't have to pay to read (at the moment) so I have no problem if the Times falls off my radar. I won't even miss it.

    The fee is only nominal but it's a principal issue I think. I'm sure the Times will be having a good read of all the discussion that takes place around this, they might even learn from it but nobody will charge them for reading our views. You can't run an anti-social news site then try to be social about it.

  6. Some people just don't get social media.

    I definitely understand because we have shifted from scarcity economics (limited resources, price is where supply and demand meet) to abundance economics (information has a marginal cost of zero so it can be offered in infinite quantities.)

    Even most social media 'experts' have trouble understanding the idea that there are other purposes for social interactions than just financial transactions.

    We all need to make a living, but chasing the money actually inhibits social media effectiveness.

    The 'social' part of social media is about relationships, connections and engagement. The only way to be good at relationships (social media) is to be generous. It is impossible to be selfish and have rich relationships.

    The more you give, the more you will receive.

  7. I can understand the Times wanting to charge for access to content and I already pay when I go to the shop to buy a newspaper. But social media is about engagement and charging to access a debate that is being powered by your users just seems like a bizare approach to building or maintaing any type of community in my opinion.

  8. There is something rather ironic about TimesTravel once being pretty good in using something like Twitter to engage with followers (of which they have thousands, but not sure for how long).

    But that approach is perhaps rather daft now, given that the end-game (to attract people to the Times site) falls down when readers suddenly find themselves faced with a pay-wall.

    It's a user experience issue, more than anything. Even after all these years I get annoyed when I follow a link from a social site or anywhere else that sends me to a closed page on the FT.

    So what should be the TimesTravel team's new approach? Perhaps it is to give away enough (teasers) content to entice people in, persuade that they should part with money to access some fabulous as well as exclusive travel content.

    The problem with this is that the latter is easy to achieve, the former far less so.

    Plenty of fabulous content elsewhere on the web. And for fear of throwing in a blatant plug, this issue feeds into this area as well (old media sites losing their influence and missing out on opportunities to explore more):


    Great post, Jeremy, BTW.

  9. John Bardos is wrong of course - the more you give the more people take.Put stuff out on the web, original writing/imagery etc., and people say thanks and often add insult to injury by then republishing it as their own.

    Your debate is about social media which of course should be free and accessible - but it costs the Times to create content and it's only on the web that the consumers want it for free.

    I hope the Times succeeds otherwise we will swap pricipled journalism for gossip, innuendo and (as twitter does so much) the endless recycling of old news stories by people who have come to them late.

    Social media sometimes exhibits a mob rule approach to issues, and very little real news is broken here despite the mythology and occasional scoops such as the Hudson ditching. News is created by persistent knowledgable people, reporters, who need to be sustained and nurtured.

    1. It would need to be pretty exceptional content if I'm to pay for it, and maybe over time it will be. I hope it works out really well for the Times.

      But if this debate is about how pay walled media sites can utilize social media, I think there needs to be something free in the offering for them to stay relevant in that space. If the Times is 100% a members only club now with nothing to share it will be interesting to see if they disappear from social networks all together.

    2. Hi Patrick,

      I am not sure I understand your argument. "The more you give, the more people take."

      That is scarcity, not abundance. That is what I was arguing against. Online content is not a zero sum game. (Neither are most physical products. Kevin Kelly was once ridiculed for predicting near free airfares.)

      The only thing worse than not making money from our content is obscurity; having no one even bother to look at it in the first place. Freemium content models are well established. Companies HAVE to give away substantial amounts of free content or no one will bother to pay attention.

      For examples of abundance economics, look at wikipedia, linux or couchsurfing. People give huge amounts of time and energy without expecting anything in return. The more people 'take' the more valuable the entire 'network' becomes. 'Taking' is a good thing, it means people value the network.

      Couchsurfing is probably the most relevant example for this travel blog. I often hear questions like, "Why would someone let you stay in their house for free?" "What is in it for them?"

      What many of us have a hard time understanding is that social interactions can and do have value above and beyond any financial transactions. Many give without expectation of direct reciprocity. To me, that is what it means to be human.

  10. What do you think their Twitter strategy should be now?
    1) Lock tweets down and make them only visible to subscribers? You could do that. Keep it all in the garden
    2) Only tweet stuff that's promotional - as their new twitter feed @new_thetimes is doing?
    3) Use twitter to run competitions to win free subscriptions and don't tweet about features/debates that non-subscribers can't access
    4) Maybe have 2 different twitter IDs? One for subscribers and one for non-subscribers.
    There was lots of discussion going on on twitter before the paywall between @timestravel and readers/journos. Do you think that the paywall will make people feel less inclined to join in even these discussions on twitter?
    So many interesting issues here!

  11. Hi Jeremy
    Naturally it's more difficult, compared to the freewheeling chat we maintained at Timestravel on Twitter. But the paywall is the new kid in town so here (now at the Sunday Times) we are trying to make the most of what we can. Rather than only link to articles - which as has been pointed out often serves to irritate when hitting registration - at @ST_Travel I am still learning to chat and engage with fewer cards in the pack. We have kept competitions outside the paywall, including the popular Where Was I? travel comp, but editorial is still inside as this is the premise of the paywall. It may be that some sections including debates and blogs could benefit from being outside, but that's a personal opinion and not on the agenda as far as I know. And where do you draw the line? I still enjoy reading your posts and other travel chat and blogs so I haven't completely disappeared from view - it's just learning a new language to stay in touch. A bientot

    1. Hi Steve
      Thanks for you comments! Really interesting.
      I guess it's a bit of a learning process.(Presumably you're free to try stuff out the way you want to and see what works and what doesn't? So you could adopt a different twitter strategy to the one the guys at @timestravel?)
      Have added @ST_Travel to my follow list! I think it's absolutely the way to go to keep at least some stuff outside the paywall. You have to give people the odd carrot as well as the stick.
      I think it's fascinating the way that in the online world publishers are having to become marketers and marketers (ie travel companies and tour operators) are becoming publishers. Both with some degrees of success and of failure.

  12. Thanks for your comments on Times Travel.

    Our business model may have changed, but Times Travel will still offer great content. We will continue to post features, live debates, video and photos that I hope will inspire and engage readers.

    Like Steve on the ST, we're keeping competitions outside the paywall, but the rest is behind it.

    For those people who are not already subscribers to the site, social networking is a good way of telling people about what we're doing - how else will they know what they're missing?

    If we lose Twitter followers because people are fed up of coming up against the paywall, that is their choice.

    For those who are interested in what we're working on at The Times website and want get involved, signing up to our Twitter feed is a good way to stay in touch - that or bumping into me at the occasional travel conference!

  13. Hi Ginny
    Thank you for commenting. I really appreciate it.
    I guess what I was wondering was, given that the paywall is there (and as I've said several times I am not against the idea in principle at all) does your twitter strategy need to change to reflect that reality?
    I completely agree that twitter in particular could be an excellent way to gain more subscribers - to encourage people to engage, to get interested and, then subscribe. But I also think that clunking up against the paywall whenever there's a link to something will turn them off really quickly too.
    So I'd suggest that maybe what you tweet, which landing pages you link to and so on might need to be different to what the travel desk at say Guardian online (or wherever there isn't a paywall) tweet. That's what I find really fascinating.
    Maybe some of the debates for example should be outside the paywall for the debate itself, but then moved behind it afterwards? Maybe you should run polls, discussions etc uniquely on twitter so the paywall isn't an issue? etc. Conversely you could take a completely different view and make the twitter feed only available to subscribers - an extra that they get if they subscribe with you tweeting really great last minute deals for example?
    Lots of interesting ideas come to mind. And, I'm really curious to understand to what degree you are allowed to experiment like this - because it's also a bit risky too. Presumably there are quite a lot of learnings from other NI titles that have paywalls in place online already.
    I'm planning to stump up my £1 for a 30-day free trial by the way.
    Thanks again for commenting

  14. Hi Jeremy
    Thanks again for your comments. Great to hear you're doing the trial - hope you find we're worth the money!
    As you say, it's an experimental stage for us with social networking, and we're still learning how Twitter is going to work now that we're behind the paywall.
    I'll continue to tweet about our online debates, as they are among the most interactive elements of what we do on Travel, and therefore more apposite to the Twitter audience.
    We welcome comments from our travel friends on Twitter on our debate subjects, and are happy to feed them into the discussion, but those who want to follow the debate will have to sign up to do so.
    We're asking people to pay because we believe we're worth paying for. Offering these debates free of charge would undermine this.

  15. I have a question for travel PRs.

    Has this downgraded The Times/Sunday Times as outlets for you?

    If, hypothetically (and all other considerations taken as equal), you had one place left on a press trip and two applicants - one with a commission from Ginny and one with a commission from the Guardian or Telegraph - who would you pick?

    I'm guessing you'd probably rather not say, so I'm not really expecting an answer, but it would be interesting to know what travel PRs are saying to each other in quiet corners about the paywall.

  16. ...well, like I say, I wasn't really expecting you to answer in public!

    No matter. I think I may have just found an answer. It's a paragraph from an article published today on Newser.com by Murdoch's biographer, Michael Wolff....

    The wider implications of this emptiness are only just starting to become clear. A Murdoch and Fleet Street veteran with whom I’ve been corresponding about the paywall reported to me on his recent conversation with an A-list entertainment publicist: “What was really interesting to me was that this person volunteered a blinding realization. ‘Why would I get any of my clients to talk to the Times or the Sunday Times if they are behind a paywall? Who can see it? I can't even share a link and they aren't on search. It’s as though their writers don't exist anymore.’”

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