The Sun's digital subscription plan is about deeper user relationships, not just revenue

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News UK, Newspapers

The Sun's digital subscription plan is about deeper user relationships, not just revenue

The Sun, the UK’s largest newspaper, tomorrow launches its digital subscription platform not to become a digital first publisher, but to “plug the hole in the bucket” that is free-to-air ad-supported web publishing.

TheMediaBriefing was given a sneak preview of the Sun+ Goals app and spoke to News UK chief executive Mike Darcey at  the company's HQ today about what it means from a media economics perspective - and we learned the aim is much more to increase user data and deepen audience relationships over time than generate short-term revenue.

Here are the details of the £2-a-month digital subscription package:

  • The jewel in the crown is the Sun+ Goals app. Thanks to a deal worth a reported £20 million, it will show highlights from all 380 Premier League matches all season for three years, making them available at 5.15pm on Saturday, five hours earlier than the BBC's Match of the Day. FA Cup rights will be added in 2014.
  • ESPN had these rights previously, but its ESPN Goals app was a stripped down goals-only experience; Sun+ has studio analysis, news and blog posts exclusive to the app, a daily analysis video from studio pundits, plus stats and results for all major leagues.
  • The Sun paywall comes up from midnight. All app and web access is restricted to subscribers - although it remains to be seen whether some content will be temporarily free, as with The Times.
  • A key driver of the platform is Sun+ Perks (modelled on the Times+ membership club), which promises at least £200 of savings and giveaways each month such as music and book downloads. A big flashy TV ad goes live next week to promote all this.
Sun+ advert - for article

A new dawn?

Darcey is in no doubt that this is the right decision, returning to the kind of free-is-bad rhetoric we've heard recently from him - but now there is flesh on the bones of the Sun+ business model.

Paid content can work as a model, even against a very strong free offering, as long as the proposition is distinctive and differentiated," he says.

Underlining perhaps the biggest trend in consumer-facing digital publishing in 2013 – the diminishing importance of meaningless Big Metrics in favour of real enagement – Darcey doesn’t care about losing casual online audience.

We had 32 million uniques in July but there’s a long tail. Many users are overseas, many come in to read one story, many read one thing and don’t know they’re even on The Sun website.

But we tend to see a hard core of about a million who are regular and value our brand and content and they’re of interest to advertisers. Yes we will lose most of that long tail but it’s not that valuable to us. People seem to think they can make a living from that – and good luck to them – but it is absolutely unravelling.

Displaying a knack for soundbites, Darcey says: “We plugged the hole in the bottom of the bucket on The Times three years ago and we’re plugging the hole in the bottom of the bucket for The Sun now.”

Darcey is clear however that there is no business model in selling access to general news. The commentary, opinion and analysis is what people will pay for, he says.

This is about print too

As some of us have long suspected since Rupert Murdoch's Damascene conversion to paywalls in 2010, the real motivation behind much of this is to protect and maybe even increase print sales. This is especially true of the The Sun which sold 2.24 million copies a day on average in June (down from 4 million in the 1980s).

And unlike readers of some other news brands, Sun readers don’t tend to spend all day in front of a PC: News UK wants the smartphone to be the companion to the newspaper, rather than a substitution.

Derek Brown, digital editor at the Sun, told us: “We’re not becoming digital first, we realise that we still sell a lot of newspapers every day – we don’t want print readers to feel that they are missing out on something.”

To that end, codes will appear in the paper - unique to each copy - that will give readers free Sun+ access via the smartphone/tablet apps. Eventually readers will need 20 codes to keep their subscription - so News is seeking to reward print loyalty with digital innovations.

Also, print readers can use “SunScan” QR codes printed next to match reports in the paper to activate highlights from the game they're reading about. 

Is this about building revenue or data?

Does News UK want to increase the ARPU (average revenue per customer) across the Sun's brand, to counteract falling advertising and circulation? No, says Darcey - it's about turning a mass, anonymised web audience into a smaller, more targeted data-rich audience. He says:

More important than ARPU is: we want to know more about our customers. We would like a subscriptions relationship where possible, but where people are not quite there the Print+ relationship (where people use codes printed in the paper) is a pretty good next best. They will be registering with us, telling them about themselves.

Darcey argues that since time began newspapers haven't bothered to meet their audience, but...

That’s not good enough any more for two reasons: from a direct relationship point of view there are just too many distractions in people’s lives and ways their intention to buy a newspaper could be disrupted. To get closer to that customer and having a closer relationship is very important.

Commercial model – advertising and user data is key

The paywall debate centres on user income but that's only one side of it. The more you learn about News UK’s plans for The Sun, just like The Times, the more you realise it’s about changing the audience relationship to create better, more commercial products. As Darcey puts it:

10 or 20 years ago it was fine to say to an advertiser ‘I’ve got a bunch of readers, I don’t know anything about them, but there’s a lot of them, and you don’t have much choice’.

But that conversation doesn’t go like that any more – advertisers get a lot of information about audiences now and we have to say a lot more. The subscription relationship is a strong part of that.

And advertising is still a key part of the picture. The Sun+ Goals app has two commercial partners, Paddy Power and Kia, who successfully bid for the account at a News UK-organised event at Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium, modelled on the US TV industry’s “upfront” bidding events.

Adverts appear in the news stream alongside regular articles – the Paddy Power ones have a “scratchcard” format where users reveal whether they’ve won free betting credit.

Changing Times 

Meanwhile, this has big implications for The Times too: its subscribers will also get Premier League goal highlights via apps and online. This will have a big effect particularly on retaining customers as well as acquiring them, the company hopes.

The company says that subscribers who engage with its Times+ perks and offers have far lower churn, a key lesson and opportunity for The Sun.

Whether News UK meets its goals through Sun+ or not, it is in a unique position of having three years of data, evidence and expertise from The Times. Innovating early on in this area gives it a substantial advantage. 

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