The Guardian Focuses On Its Brand – But Will This Work?

MPP Global Posted by MPP Global on Thursday, 29 March 2012

Newspapers per se aren’t going anywhere in fact it seems like everywhere we turn, there is a newspaper presence. Think Twitter, Facebook, Google+, your smartphone, your tablet and of course newspaper websites. Successful newspapers have harnessed the power of the Internet and have learned to embrace how this new medium has changed the way people read, consume and seek out news. And luckily for the readers, most newspapers have taken an innovative approach to how they deliver and package content.

It is no secret that the costs of print publishing are rising in tandem with decreasing revenue from print advertisements. This puts newspapers in a tough place. There is still an existing market for a print product but the real profit and growth does rest with the digital product. So how does a newspaper choose which route to go and what to focus on to maintain growth and relevance?

Some newspapers, such as the New York Times, have focused on building a robust digital experience that allows it to integrate a paywall into its digital readership model – this has resulted in steady and continued revenue from digital subscriptions and an increase in digital readership. With a trickle-down effect being that there has been a slight uptake in print subscriptions.

We’ve written previously about the success the New York Times has experienced and how the company has developed its product to meet the demands of these new digital consumers. In fact, the New York Times has become a model for many other newspapers who are keen to capture this growing digital reader base and increase its footprint.

This is what makes the Guardian newspaper so interesting. Last week the Guardian newspaper announced its recent readership numbers. The company announced that it recently hit the 4 million unique daily visitor mark for its website. This number is a 64.5% increase in traffic since 2011 and a 12.7% increase since January 2012. Its mobile sites have also experienced steady growth with 640,220 daily unique visitors – a number that is up by 28% from last month.

The Guardian newspaper recently hosted a weekend in which executives and journalists met with readers and industry analysts during various sessions and forums designed to focus on the growth of the newspaper’s brand. Yes, the Guardian brand. This is the focus for the Guardian – one of the few dailies with such a strong online readership and international audience to not embrace a digital paywall.

With such a high online readership, it is interesting to realise that the newspaper actually does not have plans to integrate a digital paywall to its website. What makes this even more interesting is that the newspaper is seeing a 12% year-on-year drop in advertising revenue. Currently print readership/payments account for 80% of the newspaper’s readership – and this number is steadily dropping.

This drop has not been missed and is why Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger says the newspaper has developed a “digital first” strategy. Recognising that the newspaper is losing money each and every year in print advertising, the newspaper has decided to shift focus to its digital products. Sounds very similar to the strategy adopted by the New York Times, with one exception – no paywall…

The Guardian executive has no plans to integrate a digital paywall into its online newspaper and other mobile sites. In fact, Rusbridger has said “if you build a wall around your content – that is not a strategy for growth”. Curious statement indeed, since all numbers and studies are pointing that consumers and readers are willing to pay for digital newspaper content.

Rather than incorporate a digital paywall, the newspaper has decided to focus on growing its brand. And a big part of this strategy is based on markets outside of the United Kingdom – with a particular focus on North America. The question that lingers is this: why not do both – focus on growing the brand and generate revenue from online readership?

Janine Gibson of the U.S. editorial Guardian team, said recently, “The economics dictated that the title either raised an online paywall or grow a global audience that it could sustain”.

Again the same question: why not do both?

With a steady interest and growth as evidenced by its online readership numbers, the mobile site readership and the success of its Facebook app that since its release in November has been downloaded 8 million times – why not monetise this?

Print revenue is declining so how does a newspaper stay ahead of the game by giving its content away for free? Digital paywalls work and consumers are open to them. The key is in providing unique and interesting content – something the Guardian is doing – so why not make some money from this? After all, there is a steady drop in advertising revenue and a rise in cost for print publishing. Time will tell if the focus on brand growth is enough to sustain a team of writers, editors, executives, and publishing experts.