NBR’s performance since the subscription wall was built

Back in mid July the NBR decided to put a chunk of their content behind a subscription wall. I was one of many amateur untrained unqualified bloggers that not only objected to being characterised as such, but was pretty scathing about the decision to lock away the content. NBR in turn referred I guessed to myself and others as “amateur hour, self righteous and all knowing bloggers.”

So how has the NBR fared? It was a half-assed launch, but they seem to have settled into a modus operendi. They are doing several things well – their site design is crisp and easy to use, their reporters are excellent and they are covering great stories.

NBR’s page impressions have clearly declined since the wall was erected, and we can expect that this was expected by them. It’s surprising to me that Interest.co.nz had not performed better versus NBR though:

It gets very interesting when we add Stuff and NZHerald (this is why I am using indexing as they are so large) into the mix:

Neither NBR nor interest.co.nz are performing well, while each of the two major media companies have grown their traffic substantially, with the big winner being Stuff.  According to several people on twitter (My thanks to @wrumbsy, @natobasso, @jadE_tangyfruit, @edcorkery, @jransom and nameless others on Twitter direct message) this was perhaps due to a bit of a redesign in August, a continuous series of tweaks since then and the effect of increased traffic from quizzes. NZ Herald have also been tweaking recently, which may account for their recent rise in PIs. I have no idea what drove their spike though – does anyone know?

We can see that the average time spent in a session rose sharply during that spike for NZHerald (and dropped a bit for Stuff) in late September/Early October, but that it has fallen away. Stuff on the other hand saw an initial drop and has been rising steadily since, to the point where visitors to both sites spend about the same amount of time there each time- almost 400 seconds.

When we look at the Unique Browsers (indexed again) we see that interest.co.nz is wallowing while searching for another financial crisis to drive traffic, while NBR improved a little but lost it again recently. Stuff and NZHerald continue to be inseparable, and have distanced themselves from their business and investment focused brethren.

The  sharp drop in unique browsers after the wall came up (especially versus other sites) shows that NBR’s decision caused them to lose a lot of readers.

And finally we get to my favorite measure – how much time was spent on each site by all people. It’s similar to the stories above, and shows that Stuff has kicked up and continues to do so, while NBR’s growth was stymied in July and they have fallen behind, to languish with interest.conz.

Finally let’s put this in perspective.

NBR and interest.co.nz are tiny compared to Stuff and NZHerald. They do however attract very interesting demographic and action-oriented segments of readers though, and so advertisers like to use them.

The other telling point in the chart is that Stuff have surfed past NZHerald in total time spent on the site. This is a big accomplishment, and so congratulations to everyone there. NZHerald are of course not standing still either, and the battle will continue for a long time. I expect that there will never be a winner unless one party blinks and tries something stupid like, well erecting a subscription paywall.

But let’s go back to the NBR – just what happened since the wall was erected? Here are all of their key traffic statistics measures gathered into one chart. and all indexed from April 6 as above:

As you can see they have all dropped. You could take your pick of start and end dates, and I have done so for this final chart. It makes for grim reading if you are selling advertising for NBR.

In the end the average for the statistics (a contrived statistic to be sure) dropped almost 30% due to the wall being erected. The average amount of time spent on site has fallen the least, but people are looking at 34% less pages and people are spending 38% less time on the site. That 38% is extremely worrying given that competition has grown in the meantime, and thus NBR’s overall  share of media attention has fallen away sharply. Advertisers care about that sort of stuff, so the revenue from advertising should be expected to fall accordingly.

Was it the right decision?

That’s hard to tell. The pricing is excessively high for non corporates, the way existing newspaper subscribers do not get a free ride is not fair and the original implementation seemed rushed. The quality of the writing and the actual website are not in dispute – it’s just a shame that less of us are seeing the content. The unknown that determines success or failure is simply how many paying subscribers there are, and what will and is happening when the first bunch of subscribers roll over into the next six month period. I await the news – though I probably won’t be able to read it at NBR.co.nz.

About Lance Wiggs

@lancewiggs
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28 Responses to NBR’s performance since the subscription wall was built

  1. Rod Drury says:

    I used to pay for the magazine each week. Have for years and always looked forward to my Friday read.

    As a loyal subscriber I felt screwed by not being allowed into the walled garden. NBR is already a significant cost – and now I only get part of the service?

    So this year I cancelled my NBR subscription. I miss my Friday read but it didn’t seem right to reward bad behavior.

    Rod

  2. Bruce Fitzsimons says:

    And just today that NZHerald decide to put a coke ad front-page barrier on. Going to nzherald.co.nz made me click through a full page coke ad.

    So I went to stuff.co.nz

  3. Bob says:

    The NZherald spike at the end of spetember is probably from the Samoan earthquake and tsunami when stuff was blocking international customers.

  4. Hamish says:

    Was going to saw what Bob said – the spike for NZHerald would be international readership with related backlinks, which would slowly decay as the story aged.

    That’s an interesting point though – if your site is down during a major event, not only do you lose the immediate traffic, but all those links that are created during the event have a value that plays out over time. It would be interesting to measure it in $$$.

  5. wakeless says:

    None of the traffic really matters to NBR. When constructing a paywall you are saying, “We don’t particularly care about our user engagement metrics, all we care about is our bottom line.”

    Now compare financial reports and this may show the decisiion in a whole new light.

  6. Bill Bennett says:

    I expect NBR numbers to fall further behind.

    One aspect of the NBR paywall is the site metrics count a page impression even if a browser arrives at the site to see the blue paywall of death rather than a readable page.

    Sure, the blue page serves up an ad – and is therefore countable, but how many blue pages does one need to see before one stops clicking to the site?

  7. Lance,

    You missed Scoop.co.nz out of your analysis :)

    There was another key factor driving traffic this year to news sites which you may not be aware of. From what we observed Google’s main algoritm was tweaked in May making major changes to traffic levels for sites which get lots of search traffic.

    “And finally we get to my favorite measure – how much time was spent on each site by all people. It’s similar to the stories above, and shows that Stuff has kicked up and continues to do so, while NBR’s growth was stymied in July and they have fallen behind, to languish with interest.conz.”

    This is far from my favourite measure as it is fundamentally flawed. To quote from a recent Admedia Column on the subject.

    “1. The limitations of time measurement metrics.

    Two key metrics measured by Google Analytics and Nielsen Net Ratings (arguably the two most useful metrics technologies as they are widely used and can therefore compare apples and apples) are average page duration a.k.a APD and average session duration a.k.a ASD. Typically these measures are seen as a proxy for engagement. NNR goes further and calculates what it calls “total time spent” by multiplying APD by the number of pages served.

    The problem with APD [ASD and TTS] is that browsers do not notify servers when a page is closed. The time spent on the final page within any given session is not recorded. When a website has a high bounce rate (and thanks to search based browsing many sites have rates of 60% or more) the page which has the longest time spent on it is not recorded. So for short session websites all that is measured is the time spent on the navigation pages – not on the actual content.”

    regards
    alastair

  8. Berend de Boer says:

    NBR has clearly a pre-web mentality. For them the web is only a delivery medium and competing with print. They’re entirely missing the point of page links and interaction. But as already mentioned, it’s the bottom line that counts. It would be very interesting to know if it is financially viable to cut yourself off.

  9. GamblersTools says:

    I think you’re missing the point a bit here. I think it should be fairly obvious that replacing free stuff with a paywall will result in all the statistics you list here dropping. Noone could argue that they should increase.

    The important information really is the money they are generating, not the number of users of the site. If all they were interested in was eyeballs then they would be mad to have a paywall. What they want is money, and they obviously feel they can get more money through paid content, then paid for by advertising content.

    Don’t get me wrong, I think paywalls are ridiculous, and NBR will no doubt suffer as a result of this decision. I just don’t think that falling numbers of users as a result of a paywall indicate the strategy has failed.

  10. Michael says:

    I might be missing it, but NBR’s decline seems as much as I would expect – nothing major – AND they’ve introduced another revenue stream…

    While you’re not saying that this is a failure (yet) there are many blogs etc claiming it is and linking here.

    I’m not a fan or paywalls, but it might be too soon to say whether this is working or not.

  11. Ted Lemon says:

    I’m surprised that you feel you can draw any conclusions at all from the data you’ve presented. The trends, if there are any, are swamped by the noise.

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  13. There is not enough money in online ads to run a business news website if you want to make milions from it. I’ve found that more money can be made by opt-in emails than online ads if you’re a niche business publisher. Would you prefer to opt-in to receive emails from all NBR advertisers willing to pay for the service in return for a password and site access? The straight subscription model is the best long-term if you can carry it financially for long enough to build a subscriber base (and Barry Colman can). I think that publishers are crazy to offer free online content at all. I ran a business site for 5 years and it grew to become one of the busiest in the world in its sector but I still couldn’t make it pay – it was always just an adjunct to the publication – and the readers didn’t acknowledge our online efforts as much as we had hoped. I think the NBR are doing the right thing. They need to have an online presence but need it to pay for itself.

  14. Matt Harman says:

    Seeing a drop in the time on site metric for NBR should be good pause for thought.

    You would think the expected user behaviour would be for paying subscribers to view more pages per session to get maximum value from their subscription.

    If that’s not happening, it suggests that the rate of subscription renewal may not be what NBR is hoping for (why pay for something you’re not getting much use out of?).

  15. Ivan Fuyala says:

    We have noticed a reasonable increase in Page Impressions with Stuff and NZ Herald on the whole, mainly due to changes to their websites.

  16. Barry Colman says:

    Dear Lance

    It’s always fascinating reading performance, or non-performance, analyses by commentators on your own business. I thought your summary was a pretty balanced one considering the difficulty of trying to assess from the outside what’s really going on at nbr.co.nz when those of us on the inside have been forced to adopt at times the modus operandi of “fire, ready, aim” as per Tom Peters’ classic “In Search of Excellence”.

    You were generous in describing our launch as half assed. After making absolutely certain everything would work absolutely flawlessly and stalling and delaying and worrying for as long as possible we took a deep breath and launched the pay wall last July.

    Man plans – the gods laugh. What a cock up. What was a simple procedure for those living in cyberspace when it came to paying up to view was a nightmare for many of the senior business executives who rushed to subscribe.

    We were flooded with complaints as confused and exasperated businesspeople tried to log on. So much for flawlessness. I don’t know how many people must have given up in frustration. It turned out the flawless plan had not taken into account that the thousands of our existing email subscribers had to “re-join” the service to get behind the pay wall.

    How come this little problem escaped our attention? Because the cyberspace boys thought this issue was self evident and obvious. Yeah right.

    You get this in the big jobs. I remember the launch of the first issue Property Press in 1978. We thought we knew how to produce the black and white bromides for the hundreds photos of the homes for sale. As it turned out we produced black and black. It was so awful that when the first bundle arrived at the launch function I turned off all the lights. With just the glow of the EXIT lights shining the paper looked magnificent and everyone toasted its success.

    I found then, and still do today, that business people are invariably very forgiving when they are supporting a new enterprise. I think they see themselves suffering similar turmoil when starting something new. They seem to know all about Murphy’s Law.

    But your review was kind enough to report that we have settled into a modus operandi, “their site design is crisp and easy to use, their reporters are excellent and they are covering great stories.”

    The biggest fear for the site was that our traffic would tank and people would turn to the free sites. This was certainly one of the things that kept me awake at 3 am.

    It didn’t happen. There has been a reduction but by own measure of uniques we’ve held on to 77% of them. And, more importantly, the quality of current readers constitutes a group of highly paid, highly educated business people. Exactly the sort of audience NBR editorial has traditionally called its own. And our advertisers will pay to reach.

    The second biggest fear, advertising volumes would fall if impressions fell back. It didn’t happen either. Since the launch the advertising booking volume has risen by 21 per cent post pay wall

    It’s important to note, however, that the volume of web advertising is feeble compared to NBR print. It was failure of site everywhere to achieve decent advertising revenue that convinced us that web readers would have to pay to finance a real newsroom service.

    The final and worst fear was that no one would pay. No one ever pays for website news. Everybody knew that.

    And NBR’s content would not be good enough. We weren’t the Wall Street Journal the commentators kept reminding us. They were right about that anyway.

    But wrong about the willingness of business to pay for good information. It WAS a slow start, not helped by our launch’s woeful execution in the eyes of our non-technie business people who tried to sign up on day one.

    But the graph on the paying customers just keeps tracking up on a 45 deg angle. There was no explosion of subscribers. They just started to come on in a steady stream. And the number in the stream is eerily the same each week. It doesn’t jump up and down, good week, bad week. The just keep turning up. And paying up.

    So how many have we got?

    The number signed up and growing is now at 7500 and growing.

    We have sold individual subscriptions and bulk subscription licenses to some of the biggest companies in the country, which enables all their staff on their domain name access the pay wall.

    The real access number based on the computer-enabled employees among the corporate subscribers is in the region of 21,000. But the access rights purchased are being heavily used by the senior executives and partners and not the by junior staff which make up the majority of the employees. Hence our internal estimate is 7500.

    I don’t want to break down the details of these numbers because we are in a very competitive business. But our corporate clients include some important early adopters including Russell McVeigh, Minter Ellison, Reserve Bank, NZTE, Colliers International, AMP Capital, Commerce Commission, Ernst and Young, Chapman Tripp, AWS Legal, University of Canterbury, NDA Engineering Ltd, Institute of Chartered Accountants, Forsyth Barr.

    A point is made that people are not spending much time on the NBR site. I don’t think this is a problem for us. Our senior business executive readers are typically busy people. They come on to check what’s what and leave, unless something pertaining their own company or industry is making the news. They are time poor.

    As your report noted, the quality of the writing and the actual website are not in dispute “it’s just a shame that less of us are seeing the content.” I agree, I think the content has been outstanding journalism and far and away better than business fare offered on the mainstream sites. And so it should be. Business reporting is our core business.

    Our journalists are now confronted daily with a question that never crossed the mind of journos of my generation when sitting behind a keyboard: Will someone pay to read this? We never had to worry about such stuff. Our papers’ circulation was a given. The readers were given whole pages of stories to choose from. If they didn’t like yours it was tough luck. Today technology lets us know how many impressions were scored on any given story. It’s become a transparent and revealing experience to those working in newsrooms.

    Some NBR newspaper readers have complained that they are being charged twice for the same information if they subscribe to the NBR 24/7 site. But the site is a different business entirely because it’s a news service. NBR print is a weekly summary and analysis of the country’s business, financial and political affairs. Our competitors frequently regurgitate their newspaper copy online and people have wrongly assumed we do the same. It’s been very difficult to convince even the most intelligent of them that this is not the case.

    Meanwhile we are continuing to add new content features to the site and our print archive is also about to go online to subscribers.

    In the end the success of the NBR pay site will depend on the quality of its content. It’s that simple. I believe that business people WILL pay for good quality editorial content. If we fail to maintain and improve the coverage we’re providing to New Zealand business the enterprise will fail. It’s not a matter of cost for our customers. They will gladly part with the petty cash we charge to become subscribers. They won’t pay a cent if they think it’s rubbish.

    Did we make the right decision with the paywall launch? I think the jury is still out. We’ve got a lot of customers but we need a lot more. They are continuing to sign up and that’s the best measure we have that we’re on the right track.

    My gut feeling is that the site will get better and better and pick up more and more subscribers. But we are not on an ego trip. If it doesn’t work we’ll stop doing it. I’d hate to die wondering whether it would have been a success and there’s only one sure way to find out.

    Newspaper Industry “best practice” – laying off journalists, dumbing down the newsrooms and using heaps of dirt cheap overseas cut-and-paste material to fill all the space, is a scenario that I would find profitable. But not satisfying.

    Thank you for your ongoing interest in our progress.

    Regards,
    Barry Colman
    Publisher

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  18. I think that the NBR could offer a secondary level of subscription based on opting-in to receive solus emails from advertisers in exchange for access. It could allow a reader to view one story a week for example – much less than a full subscription would purchase. The NBR would then open up a new revenue stream based around email outs and currently there is a demand for such a service but not many media outlets offering it – especially opted-in lists of senior business people. SmileCity a la the NBR!
    Good on Barry Colman for giving such a reasoned and lengthy response to your post.

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  20. MG says:

    I initially teeth-gnashed about this also, Lance. It felt like Barry was breaking some pious web covenant and could only redeem himself by busting it down and heading towards the confessional. But on reflection, it’s simply a quibble over $89. To buy, or not to buy. To read, or not to read. A decision I make every time I dare to surf Amazon, iTunes or any other e-commerce site. The tantalising Magic Mouse or wireless keyboard will set me back much more and those images on the Apple site are so enticing. So I resist and miss out on their delights, like Rod with his self-imposed NBR exile. Is it really about the possible foolishness of the prescribed business model ($600k+ upside looks pretty good for content reuse), or is it simply frustration at being offered something that we used to enjoy for free? (Barry – can I please have a free sub for this supportive letter?)

  21. jon says:

    Fantastic letter Barry, really interesting to hear stuff like that from the horses mouth… a calm, articulate voice amidst the screaming seagulls….

    For what it’s worth, kudos, I hope you do well..

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