The Times’ (UK one) smart membership experiment

By Steve Outing

Frankly, I’m surprised that it’s The Times and the Sunday Times that have initiated the closest to what I’ve advocated in the past in terms of a smart, voluntary news premium membership model online. If you haven’t seen it, check out Times+.

Why my surprise? Well, if you’ve followed recent coverage of Rupert Murdoch, whose News Corp. owns the Times, you’d think that Sir Rupert is dead set on charging for all sorts of content online from his newspapers and new properties, and is “going to war with the Internet.” … That link is to Michael Wolff’s Vanity Fair profile on Murdoch for the November 2009 issue.

But read Wolff’s piece and then look at the Times+ strategy and you have to wonder what Murdoch is really thinking. (Or if his underlings are simply ignoring his Luddite tendencies; or if it’s all some grand plan meant to mislead competitors, analysts, and pundits.)

Times+ slogan

Times+ works like this:

  • Subscribers to the print edition get a Times+ online membership as part of their subscription.
  • Non-print-subscribers can pay £50 a year for a Times+ membership.

The tagline or slogan from the folks marketing Times+ is “events + offers + extras.” What you get:

“If you’re a member of Times+, you’re a member of The Times and The Sunday Times, and can look forward to invitations to exclusive events — free film screenings, private views and expert talks — plus upgrades, money-saving offers, gifts and much more.”

At least at this time, the news content of The Times/Sunday Times’ main website is free. Times+ is meant to entice online readers to cough up the £50 a year fee, and give a digital goodie to those willing to still read The Times on newsprint. Not interested in Times+ marvelous offers? You can still read the Times’ content free on the web. (I hope Murdoch doesn’t change that; Times+ as currently implemented is smart.)

With a nod to the news-industry discussion about how premium content online can get people to pay, Times+ members get access to either Culture+ or Travel+ (but not both), which otherwise each cost £25 a year. (My guess: The Times won’t sell many £25 online subscriptions to either site, as most interested readers will simply look elsewhere on the web for similar free coverage.)

What makes this smart, in my view, is that a big part of the appeal of Times+ is the offers of discounts and offers from sponsors and advertisers, plus the free member events. In fact, when you view the homepage of Times+, note that the special offers are highlighted above the editorial content, and presented in the same style. The message is clear: Subscribe to Times+ and you’ll be getting your money’s worth.

When I’ve heard others in the newspaper industry talk about the membership model, the tendency is to focus on news extras. Which is fine, but I don’t think news extras alone will grow a newspaper online membership to anything resembling success. Offering some really good commercial offers has real potential, though.

I’d like to see Times+ step up the marketing a bit, though, to make becoming a paying Times+ member a “no-brainer.” It’s not that yet. But a simple tweak of the marketing should do it. “For your £50 a year membership, you get £500 in discounts and offers, including 2-for-1 meals at some of London’s finest restaurants.” Or something like that.

So, bravo, The Times/Sunday Times! Please don’t let your Australian boss screw this up.

Author: Steve Outing Steve Outing is a Boulder, Colorado-based media futurist, digital-news innovator, consultant, journalist, and educator. ... Need assistance with media-company future strategy? Get in touch with Steve!