Now that The Sun’s paywall is down, News UK is rethinking how it works with advertisers

The Sun may be one of the country’s most well known media brands but News UK admits it hasn’t monetised this popularity as well it could have done, with its paywall coming down today (30 November) offering a chance to right those wrongs and instil a more progressive commercial attitude at the business.

The red top’s paywall hasn’t “worked for us in the right way”, News UK commercial chief Dominic Carter concedes. It’s always been about “scale and being a part of the social fabric of the country”, he continued. And yet setting up a paywall to try and premiumise that proposition was counterintuitive to both those ideals.

“If The Sun was the original social media then it will equally be the most shareable content,” is Carter’s topline explanation of how the tabloid’s shift to a freemium model will allow it to recapture the lucrative features of “scale, reach and influence”. The first advertisers to try and exploit The Sun's newfound reach are Currys with a homepage takeover and NOW TV's takeover of Sport, TV and Showbiz sections, both of which mark a change to how the newspaper strikes commercial deals.

“We, along with the industry, have become trading led and over reliant on agencies,” Carter added. “I think we’ve all probably not had the best direct relationships with advertisers and we need to be better at that.”

While the end goal is clear, the path to it is far from. Carter and his team are in the midst of a review designed to put data at the forefront of how they work with not just advertisers, but with the rest of the business and its titles. Like its peers, News UK is responding to advertiser demand to buy audiences rather than impressions, forcing it to make some tough calls - including whether it takes a high point or standard view on viewability and how it monetises its content beyond its own properties, particularly on Apple News.

“As publishers, we’re caught in the middle of what is clearly the difference between walled gardens and an open web,” admitted Carter. “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.”

For this uneasy alliance between publisher and technology platform to benefit the former, it needs to execute properly on mobile. The barrier for News UK is that no newspaper publisher has been able to do this outright yet, which is where Unruly comes in. News Corp completed its £114m purchase of the social video ad platform in September and has already been integrating its ad formats into desktop and mobile in-feeds for its titles, with articles soon to follow. Additionally, there’s access to the tech city darling’s network that guarantees viewability of premium video impressions, which could come in handy from both commercial and marketing perspectives.

“No one has managed to make mobile a really successful proposition and video is a huge part of that,” said Carter. “Unruly will help us here in the UK to really accelerate our video strategy around our advertising and our content, as well as help us to understand what makes these things so shareable.”

While video is set to a play a big part in News UK’s rush for mobile revenue, the role of apps is less clear. “I think the reality is that we’re now in a situation where everything we’re doing is a bit of a wait and see until once The Sun’s paywall comes down,” said Carter.

In the two years since The Sun erected its paywall, the media landscape has changed vastly, none more so than with the emergence of ad blockers as a clear and present danger to publishers. However, Carter’s view of the threat is a more pragmatic one, influenced in part by the fact that The Sun can’t afford to tackle it head on while its digital footprint is so small.

“We’ve gone from a base of 225,000 subscribers to now creating a free proposition. Even if we had five or 10 per cent of our new audiences with an ad blocker, it’s still upside from where we were in terms of numbers. [Ad blocking] is not the highest priority for us at this point but it’s a consideration. We are thinking about it and we’re looking at what the IAB do.” He added that the focus will be on firstly building the audience growth required: “Let’s make sure that we’re creating a great experience and not a poor one.”

Part of that experience will be dependant on the way ads are targeted, which is why Carter is assessing the learnings he can take from News UK’s parent News Corp’s ad tech stacks for the Wall Street Journal and New York Post. Despite these plans, there are none to join fellow publishers of the Pangaea programmatic alliance that was formed in March to premiumise remnant inventory.

“Pangaea is interesting in the sense that it gives the option for publishers to make more money but it’s not something we’re participating in and its not something we’re intending to at this point,” revealed Carter. “In principle there is something interesting in Pangaea, or something like it.”

On the print side, News UK’s commercial boss is adamant it’s an untapped medium that’s been a victim of being undersold rather than being a poor alternative to digital. Through the Project Footprint initiative, the media conglomerate worked with Comscore and the Keller Fey Group earlier this year to closely track the online and offline activities of 70 multiplatform subscribers to The Times over the course of a month. It threw up evidence to suggest the way readers interact with the newspaper is undervalued, and called for the introduction of better attribution modelling.

“Digital does work, especially when it comes to performance, but I’m not convinced it has managed to crack brand advertising, which is where we still work really well as print products,” claimed Carter. “The sector has to prove that the media metrics work. There’s enough evidence out there to say it does and I think we need to do a better in job in terms of attribution econometric modelling.”

Change is afoot at News UK and as it does all it can to change culturally, the proof will be whether this can actually change the way it works with advertisers and agencies.

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