News UK’s the Times to reimagine the homepage takeover as it denounces traffic rat race

Homepage takeovers may be viewed as the bluntest of ads in an era of sharper advertising but News UK thinks it’s here to stay (for now) and is working on a more premium version to complement the Times' revamped site.

It’s a spirited approach to trying to make a format that is often used as a public shaming board for intrusive ads work, given its propensity to generate swathes of revenue. And with the focus on rich content at the Times greater now it is no longer chasing breaking news, the publisher knows it can’t afford to push lucrative readers away with CPM-driven online advertising.

“I think a lot of the feedback we got from readers was that they found homepage takeovers didn’t work for them so much and so we decided to work on a premium format that reimagines the homepage takeover,” revealed Alan Hunter, the head of digital for the Times' titles. “I think on the homepage often you have banners, billboards, gutters and MPUs; we want to turn that into a richer experience for readers and for advertisers.”

Work is still under way so Hunter declined to share more information, though he teased early designs have been greeted positively by those advertisers to have been granted a sneak peek. “We’ll be launching to the market sometime soon and you’ll find it’s a way of responding to how people actually use a page as much pushing something at them,” he added.

The change is driven by a fusion of the Times and Sunday Times sites, which already share tablet and phone apps, that will host content from both on one long homepage. Ads consequently will be fewer but better according to the publisher, with each article reportedly having an ad slot after the fifth paragraph and a placement will feature after every section. Unruly video ads will also be fed into the site following News UK’s acquisition of the video platform last year.

Unlike most other UK news outlets, the Times and Sunday Times have been behind a paywall since 2010, and since then the focus has been on winning over readers and advertisers with in-depth analysis pieces rather than its ability to break stories. And while the paywall has undoubtedly limited it reach - the Times was the 110th most visited media title in the UK last year with 64 million pageviews according to SimilarWeb – traffic isn’t the only measure of success when you are a strong, heritage brand.

“We have a different business model to many of our traditional newspaper competitors whereby we see that having the annuity income from subscribers is more regular, more predictable than having to rely solely on ad revenue,” said Hunter.

If breaking news is a commodity amid so much media fragmentation, then the Times wants to create value for itself and its readership by exploring those stories that matter. Its decision to scrap rolling web news is testament to that resolve, with the publisher staking a core part of its commercial proposition on the regular contact it has with its readers. Now, content on the site as well new revamped tablet and phone apps is essentially sorted into online editions that are updated four times a day. There’s an early morning issue, followed by an update at 9am, then at noon and finally 5pm – all points in the day when traffic across its platforms usually spikes.

“We thought how can we best serve people at those times a day and so we basically decided that we would not chase the breaking news cycle,” said Hunter. “We recognise that although we as journalists are checking the news constantly the readers aren’t. We realised that if we serviced readers well then scale doesn’t matter.”

His confidence is born from the fact that the brands boast a loyal – and more importantly engaged - audience that Hunter claimed are “growing”. Some 172,000 digital only subscribers pay £6 a week for both titles, while around 402,000 sign up to read them in print and digital formats each month. Once they sit down with the content online, the Times’ reader’s average dwell time is 45 minutes and on Sunday this rises to around an hour and five minutes. That engagement has meant advertisers are prepared the same amount for tablet ads as they do for print ones.

Beyond the paywalls of the Times and Sunday Times, Hunter is experimenting with other commercial models. Last week, it launched a travel vertical, dubbed Insider City Guides, which is powered by advertising and affiliate revenue.

“You can’t try and be everything [as a publisher] because you’ll fall short,” said Hunter. “I think the interesting thing about the current digital landscape is that there are endless opportunities and we continue to experiment the whole time.”

The Sunday Times' deputy editor, Sarah Baxter, addressed the change of news breaking strategy and its implications at a Media Society event last night, saying readers go to the Times "not for routine rolling news, but for the accuracy of our reporting, the quality of our writing and the depth of our analysis."

Baxter also dismissed suggestions that the Times' titles would abandon the paywall policy or had any vision of following the Independent down the online-only road. "We don't see expanding our digital strategy as being at odds with our commitment to those who still prefer us in print form.... whether you want to spread the Sunday Times and its sections all over the kitchen table or read it on your phone at the bus stop or in the coffee shop, we're committed to being there for you."

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Seb Joseph

Hi, I'm the news editor at The Drum. Give me a shout if you have any questions about our news coverage or would like to pitch in a story.

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