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Reframing NI's paywall

To outsiders, the News International's paywall is anathema, evidence of Rupert Murdoch's greed. But subscribers view it as a club with potential.

There's an experiment in advertising research known as "the Vogue test". Place the same dress in Vogue and Grazia and customers will attach different values to it. No prizes for guessing where the dress is most valuable, of course: Vogue wins every time.

Economists call this, in their inimitable and accessible style, "the presenter effect". Others would say “50% of meaning is context”. But, in a nutshell, what advertisers are really interested in is the question "how does the place I put my product affect what people think of it?"

We recently had to answer a similar question but this time, instead of a print publication, our "place" was The Times online — the UK's first pay-for-news site, owned by News International. Our research helped show that accessing content that's in a paid-for environment positively boosts perception of value, premiumness and exclusivity.

We're not here to talk about the numbers. What we're interested in here is that most commentators have become fixated with the notion of a "paywall" (a "bad thing"). Walls are built to keep unwanted intruders out. Early cities were mainly ways of excluding (thieves, vagabonds, stray goats, locusts, storms).

Languages help us connect and communicate with others, they often evolve just as much as a secret code to keep strangers in the dark. SMS speak like “Tht ldy ov'r thr is a BAMF'n txtr, LQ @ her fingers mov'n, dm” is a case in point because it also creates a community of people in the know. But walls aren't always barriers, they also protect, enclose and nurture. The tension between access and exclusion is a primary feature of communities of all kinds.

This is very much how paid-for content environments behave. Once "in" — a bit like entering the magical space of the Glastonbury site — you find yourself part of a community of like-minded individuals with shared values and interests. It's a club not a shop.

"Paywall" is an accurate description in one way only — there's an entry fee. We see this model as more about membership than anything else. After all, no-one talks about Tate membership as a "paywall". But it's obvious why: people are more and more accustomed to free content online and the wall is being presented a bit like the Berlin wall — it segregates. It's hastily erected.

This isn't how Times online subscribers describe the world behind the paywall. For them it's definitely a club. And a club with great new potential. The potential lies in the new relationship it creates between readers and content as well as with each other. This potential is heightened when iPad enters the frame and here's why it starts to get really interesting.

With new content delivery tools, members of this "club" are demanding more. More personalisation. New services. More relevant advertising. Brands pondering their future content strategy would do well to consider not just what customers are buying, but what they are buying into.

 

Nick Coates
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2011