MailOnline’s Paywall Mistake

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It has been confirmed today that MailOnline will publish up to 15 articles a day behind a paywall as part of a new subscription that will use the Mail+ brand. MailOnline has always been seen as one of the pioneers of online publishing at scale so this feels like something of a shift in direction. Per Press Gazette, the change will come into force in January. I guess they need to find a way to pay Boris Johnson…

In her article, Charlotte Tobitt reported that MailOnline publishes 1500 articles a day, a quite staggering amount. According to the outlet, what goes behind the paywall will apparently “focus on the subjects the Mail is famous for – from agenda-setting investigations to major royal and showbiz exclusives, from expert health, money and travel advice to hard-hitting opinions from an unrivalled line-up of columnists”.

Does this shift show that everyone, even some of the biggest online publishers, needs a subscription service?

First things first, let’s not exaggerate the scale of things. We’re talking about around 1% of the site’s content going behind a paywall. It is hardly a major strategic shift. But it does feel like MailOnline is testing the waters with an eye on future expansion and I’m not convinced it will work. The success of MailOnline is clickbaity celeb stories that keep people browsing the site – the sidebar of shame. Hitting a paywall will stop that. I also wonder if it will cause confusion with the existing Mail+ subscription, which primarily focuses on digitising the print newspaper. 

Obviously, I think subscriptions are great in many contexts – you’re about to hit a paywall on this article! But I’m producing a niche product. That is very different from a giant mass-market tabloid website that people have got very used to reading for free over 20 years.

We also know that subscription fatigue is a very real thing. In November last year, The Drum reported on a survey that revealed 72% of consumers in America thought there were “too many” subscription services. Furthermore, 63% of respondents in that survey by payments platform Bango said they would be happy to pay more if it meant they managed fewer services in return. Rebundling.

Look at what is happening in streaming. Some of the smaller services are looking to consolidate. For example, we may see Apple TV+ and Paramount+ merge in some way. There is only so much anyone will pay for. (And, if you’re reading this bit, thank you so much for paying for this newsletter and supporting my work.)

The Guardian and MailOnline have both made a virtue of producing huge global websites without a paywall. (The Guardian offers memberships, but no paywall.) In that Press Gazette piece, MailOnline editor and publisher Danny Groom said that “now feels like the right time to be offering our loyal and engaged audience more of what they love”.

Maybe so, and we all know that media is tough and that direct relationships with consumers are important. So is having multiple revenue streams. But by even putting a small amount of content behind a paywall, MailOnline potentially risks losing its biggest advantage – the sense you can go there and whatever you want will be available.

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