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The Sun's post-paywall future - is is all about playing catch up with the Mail?

On 30 November, one of the boldest, and some have said most foolhardy, experiments in British publishing in recent times came to an end. After two years of promoting its subscription model News UK’s key tabloid title The Sun finally took down its paywall. No longer would readers have to pay a monthly fee to see its content. They could read it all freely online.

During the two years of the paywall, the media landscape has changed enormously and it has thrown up four key challenges which the execs at News UK are clearly focusing on now. 

1. How to play catch up in circulation

Before the paywall came down The Sun’s online offering had 1.29m daily browsers. That’s way more than the 225,000 subscribers it has and this is because the paper has gradually been shifting content in front of the paywall. Although its paper sales are still pegged at around two million, a section of the advertising and public relations industries saw the brand as something of an afterthought when it came to promoting their brands online. It simply couldn’t match the sale of other newspapers’ online offerings.

The Guardian, and especially the Mail, have grown hugely in the last two years with figures of around eight million and thirteen million daily readers respectively. Both are now huge global players generating millions of page impressions each day. In some ways, the Mail has eaten the Sun’s lunch with its addictive sidebar full of showbiz stories. The Mail and The Guardian are now clearly international brands, The Sun, is at the moment largely a domestic UK one.

To complicate things further the Sun's old sparring partner The Mirror has made significant progress online now claiming audience figures that are around triple what The Sun is currently achieving. 

And then, of course, there’s the challenge of the virally driven sites like BuzzFeed, which hoover up a lot of eyeballs that traditionally might have turned first to The Sun. Even in its core areas like football it faces strong competition for audience share in the UK from the likes of the Metro as well from international players like The Bleacher Report.

Catching up is clearly going to be expensive too. It requires huge amounts of quality content, but quite probably massive spends on social media promotion and content recommendation engines. There is also likely to be plenty of TV advertising like this. 

Nevertheless, The Sun's owners are bullish. ‘If The Sun was the original social media then it will equally be the most shareable content,’ News UK commercial chief Dominic Carter told The Drum.

Yet might it be that the paper isn’t in a hurry to scale its readership? Some pundits, like The Guardian's ex-editor Peter Preston, believes that the bringing down of the paywall is not necessarily about creating a new online era for the paper, but shoring up its print edition. He argues here that ‘the new, free digiBun probably won’t be a staging post to some roseate red-top existence; more an ad hoc reinforcement of the print presence in yet another vision of the future that may not endure beyond the day after tomorrow.’

2. The changing media landscape - ads

The post-paywall Sun website finds itself in a changing commercial landscape. Advertising has moved on in the last two years most notably with the growth of both native and programmatic platforms. The advent of the Pangaea Group, an elite group of publishers who got together to ensure the best rates for their online display remnant content, has also altered the advertising terrain. At the moment, The Sun isn't a member of the group and according to Dominic Carter has no immediate plans to join.

More worrying for the brand is the rise of ad blockers. There is no way of working out exactly how much impact have ad blockers will have on The Sun’s bottom line, but conservative estimates from this IAB report concluded that one in five Britons use one.

Even attracting huge amounts of traffic doesn’t always pay significant dividends as the Mail Online has discovered. The Sun has apparently doubled its digital sales team and has incorporated Unruly Media, which it bought earlier this year, as part of its core offering. Ultimately monetising online content remains a challenge for most UK newspapers. 

3. The changing media landscape - mobile

The ongoing shift from desktop to mobile, which has arguably sped up in the last couple of year, also means some interesting challenges for The Sun. Like all publishers, it is currently mulling over the pros and cons of integrated platforms like Facebook’s Instant stories and Snapchat Discover. There are already several News Corp linked websites on Discover including Sky News. So it may be a matter of time before The Sun lands on the platform.

‘As publishers, we’re caught in the middle of what is clearly the difference between walled gardens and an open web,’ Carter told The Drum. ‘While that battle between these walled gardens is going on there’s a chance for us to use some of those good distribution platforms. We’re just starting to get the statistics in from Apple News in the US and so we’ll look to see how it’s working out, and that’s the same for [Facebook’s] Instant Articles.’

4. Exploring other monetisation options

The culling of the paywall might not mean that the days when readers pay for content at The Sun are completely over. Other newspapers, like FT and New York Times, have pioneered metered paywalls, while in Europe the startup Blendle has created a growing business in Germany and The Netherlands offering individual articles for sale from high-profile media companies. 

Some media companies are also championing membership schemes and again this is another option that the News UK is sure to be considering.

Might The Sun innovate in this area too?

For media watchers, it will be fascinating to see how the post-paywall Sun fares, and what strategies it adopts.

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