The Fall of the Berlin Wall

Come on. That's the image you were all thinking of...

The Times’ controversial paywall was down again today, for the first time since January 14th. But what could have caused this apparent failure of Rupert Murdoch’s much vaunted subscription service?

Tweet by @Badams
A hack? Technical issues? Or a very canny marketing ploy to generate interest in The Times’ online offerings?

I’m not alone in thinking that it’s the latter.

Tweet by @ImpactCopyWhen The Times paywall went up in June 2010, it’s estimated that between 60% and 90% of their readership deserted for free-to-read services.

With that sort of drop in readership, you’d expect The Times to try something spectacular to win customers. But instead, all we had were a few TV adverts and a paid-for iPad/iPod app.

Then something strange started to happen. Every few months, the paywall would crumble, just for an hour or two, and we’d suddenly all discover the wonders that lurk within.

But that crumbling’s not due to foul play. No, a number of people are convinced that it’s some clever social marketing to entice new readers to sign up.

And here’s why:

Announcements from Columnists

If people found out organically that the paywall was down, it’d be easy to point the finger at a glitch or hack. And if The Times made a big deal about being free for a set period of time, we’d all know it was marketing.

But instead, what we get is something in the middle. The announcement is invariably made by Times columnists.

Usually Caitlin Moran, who boasts over 70,000 followers.

Today though, we also get an announcement for Oliver Kay’s 50,000 followers. So is it too much to assume that The Times’ top Tweeters get an email asking them to do a bit of plugging?

Of course, those Tweets are just from today. Can we read too much into this?

Oh. Exactly the same thing in September. And over 100 retweets. That looks to me like a clever use of Twitter marketing from NewsCorp’s flagship newspaper.

But why bother dropping the paywall anyway?

Free Samples Work

Here’s a question for you. What brand of coffee do you tend to drink at home?

Until I nearly killed myself via caffiene overdose thanks to a bet at University (Free tip: DON’T fill a jar of coffee with hot water and attempt to drink the resultant coffee sludge), I only drank one particular brand. Why? Because I acquired a box of free samples in my teenage years, and it never occured to me to buy a different brand.

There’s a reason that so many companies give away free samples. It’s because it works. Once you’re used to getting a certain product, you don’t tend to move to one of their competitors without a good reason.

And The Times’ articles (not the news) is their product. And if you’re happy reading Giles Coren, you’ll pay a pound to carry on, instead of switching to George Monbiot or Richard Littlejohn.

But just because free samples generate sales doesn’t mean this is a great social marketing ploy by The Times. I mean, where’s the evidence?

It’s Too Regular to Be Anything Else

  • June 2010 – The Times goes behind a paywall
  • September 10 2010 – The Times paywall is down!
  • January 14th 2011 – The Times paywall is down!
  • March 25th 2011 – The Times paywall is down!

Is it just me, or does that seem to be happening once a quarter?

I guess we’ll find out in late June or early July.

Am I Paranoid?

I’ll admit, I do enjoy the odd conspiracy theory, but the evidence seems pretty convincing to me. I think The Times are being very canny with this, and good luck to them. But what do you think? Let everyone know on Facebook, or leave a comment.


Edit – 15:38 25/03

If the Tweet below is to believed, it’s all just a happy coincidence as opposed to a marketing strategy.

Apparently, it’s to do with data updates. According to Tom Whitwell – Editorial Director of Times Digital:

So – if it’s not a deliberate marketing ploy from The Times, should it be?

Edit – 09:13 08/12

It’s down again. Caitlin Moran told us all on Twitter. But as her comment below suggests, it’s still not a deliberate ploy. Honest…


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