How The Brexit Crisis Showed Content Can Profit From Paywalls

There’s opportunity in every crisis. Just look at Brexit. While most of us have been told to sit tight and not do anything too impetuous until the initial storm passes, some of Britain’s top executives have been – as the City likes to call it – filling their boots.

The CEOs of Britain’s top 250 companies have spent £14.3 million buying shares in their own companies after the prices collapsed during the chaotic days after the Brexit vote. According to some reports, ‘directors in companies such as Lloyds Bank, construction firm Berkeley Group, the Royal Mail and Debenhams have bought up shares dumped on the market. A total of 33 directors in the top 100 companies spent £8.5 million over the past week.

Equally, the media has experienced some astonishing success that proves two things. First, that good can come out of bad. And, second, that when it comes to seismic, life-changing events, the perspectives and analysis of dead-tree media are far more potent than those of social media.

Silicon Valley seems to take a sadistic pleasure in urging newspapers and journalists to retire early to their graves. Yet new figures suggest the opposite. Instead of such myopic foolishness they should instead attempt to understand what the data is telling us.

First, to newspapers. Since the Brexit vote, The Times has said it a 100,000 copies, or 18%, on Saturday and The Guardian gained 70,000, or more than 20%. The Daily Mirror had a 40,000 copy uplift, making its Saturday paper the best-seller of the year. And industry estimates suggest the Daily Mail added as many as 90,000 with The Sun gaining about 52,000.

According to Newsworks, the trade body for UK newspapers, total sales were up 724,000 across three days compared to average circulation. The average uplift on Saturday was 7% and some titles saw increases of nearly 20% on both Saturday and Sunday. Rufus Olins, the chief executive of Newsworks, said: “Readers have always turned to newspapers at the time of big, national events and continue to do so.”

So not only did print coverage help to manipulate the campaign – particularly the right-wing press’s Brexit agenda – but it also became a focal point for people. To understand, to learn, to share in the joy, upset and rancour. Partly, I’d suggest because of the quality of journalism on offer and partly because people trust journalism that they buy. The transaction instils trust. If you’re paying for it, it must be good. Which is something one must assume that advertisers have noticed – instead of moaning about Brexit, this might be a way for them to capitalise on it.

Equally interesting is what has happened to the Financial Times’s website in the past few days and weeks, proving that quality journalism is as potent a force as shallow click-bait in attracting digital audiences.

During the day before Brexit, the FT’s publisher dropped its paywall for all news related to the referendum and naturally saw a traffic spike. Over the weekend, the FT’s Brexit poll tracker was its most-popular-ever piece of journalism, drawing nearly 4 million pageviews.

Of course free is a wonderful selling tool but what’s interesting is that people didn’t just plunder the site’s content, they bought subscriptions.

In fact, according to Digiday, ‘the FT saw a 600 percent surge in digital subscriptions sales over the weekend (compared to the average weekend) since the Brexit vote news broke, which equated to thousands of additional subscriptions sales.’

And the FT’s commercial department were quick to take advantage of the desire for content amid the turmoil. Its chief commercial officer Jon Slade said: “We dialled up our marketing on a real-time basis. We were looking at buying patterns, opportunities in social, and spending our marketing budgets in pretty aggressive ways in an attempt to try and dominate a story. We then made sure that didn’t conflict with the efforts of our audience engagement team, so there was constant dialogue between audience engagement and editorial, and between marketing and acquisition.” said Slade. These marketing teams sent out social media messages that helped to promote articles that were proving highly popular among the FT’s audience.

So free in this case actually made money by providing a ‘taste’ of what was on offer. Again, what really inspired people to take up subscriptions was that they were hooked by quality journalism. At a time when the echo chambers of social media were spouting rehashed opinions, crass insults and pathetic wailings, newspapers and their websites were demonstrating that good, well-written, intelligent stories make money.

I may not sport a beard, wear flip-flops to work or play ping-pong in my lunch hour, but that’s the kind of statistical evidence that even dead-tree veterans like me consider to be elements of a pretty decent business plan.

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