Trinity Mirror - is this the future of news website publishing?

The Strategy

In 2015 UK publishing giant Trinity Mirror announced a new digital advertising strategy. The group have adopted ‘FreeWall®’, created by Marketing Agency Rezonence. This forces readers to engage with advertising in exchange for free access to content.

Rezonence describe the product as ‘granting the user access to premium content in return for accepting a meaningful brand message or experience’. It works by inserting adverts within the body of news articles and requires users to indicate they have seen them before accessing the rest. It is not clear what this ‘meaningful’ engagement will look like (there appears to be a delay in implementation) but could involve requiring readers to click a notice stating that they have seen the ad or answer a question about it.

The Strengths

Advertising avoidance

There has been a lot of talk of late regarding ad blocking. Though important, ad blocking is simply a bold example of an age old problem – ad avoidance (what Rezonence call ‘banner blindness’). Our ethnographic research shows ad avoidance falls into two types; active and passive. Ad blocking is the most extreme form of ‘active’ avoidance. It involves consumers choosing to have digital ads blocked on all sites they visit. But passive avoidance is also prevalent. This sub-divides into conscious and unconscious inattention. The former includes the mum who leaves the room when TV ads come on, the latter includes the browser trained to ignore search advertising results on the right hand side of the page on Google. These are huge issues for marketers who question what proportion of their ads are seen and by extension what ROI they have achieved. There will never be a panacea for this problem and this applies as much to this strategy as any other (whilst they can force readers to wait for a full article to appear it does not guarantee they will view the ad in the interim). However it does increase the likelihood that ads are seen.

Advertising value

In the UK media sector print advertising revenues vastly outstrip digital. The objective of (most) publishers is to manage the decline in print revenues and ensure these are compensated by increased digital revenues. But this rests on the assumption that one day digital revenues will be comparable to or even exceed that of print (whereas Warc and the Advertising Association found digital revenue growth in 2015 was the lowest on record and in the first half of 2015 £234m of Trinity Mirror’s publishing revenues came from print vs £19m from digital). Advertisers need to be convinced that digital ads are seen and impact on the consumer in a manner comparable to print. This strategy will bolster the Mirror’s case that readers engage with their ads.

Competitors

In November The Sun abandoned its paywall, allowing users to access content for free for the first time in years. This means Trinity Mirror is now directly competing for users and ad spend with one of the most successful UK publishers. So how does the Mirror compete? This new strategy provides a solution. Mirror Sales teams will be able to go forth and promote their unique guarantee – that their readers are actively engaging with digital ads. For an advertiser this will prove a meaningful incentive to put money into Mirror coffers.

The challenges

The reader’s burden

Though minimal this does require extra effort on the part of the reader and proves risky when they have access to alternative brands (think Mail Online, Express, Star, BBC News etc). The danger will be that consumers may choose to abandon the site and opt for a publisher that provides content with no strings attached. Whether this strategy succeeds depends on implementation – how are readers to engage? How regularly? Which sections of the site? Which articles will it apply to? The key will be to ensure that the interaction chosen is ‘meaningful’ but also minimal in effort. A strategy which requires readers to answer long winded questions or watch long videos (by which time they may have lost interest in the article itself) will be counter-productive.

Unique content

The key point is that Trinity Mirror is doing something many others are not and that often readers have a large repertoire of news sources. Which begs the question – why would a reader visit a site which requires something in return when they could visit another which doesn’t? Especially since this is particularly easy in the digital world where a quick search will locate the same story on another site. The answer lies in the uniqueness of content. There is little point in adding this requirement to run of the mill news stories that are covered on every other site but rather to target those articles which are truly unique – the opinion pieces, the editorials, the exclusives. Only if content is valuable and unique (and recognised as such by loyal readers) are they likely to accept any extra effort.

Striking a deal with the reader

There has always been an implicit agreement between ‘free’ media brands and consumers. In exchange for exposure to advertising the consumer can access content at no charge. Millions of articles are available for readers to peruse with just one proviso – they accept the content they want sits alongside ads they potentially don’t. FreeWall® is an attempt to make this implicit bargain explicit. But for this to work readers need to know (and be constantly reminded) that the reason they have access to such content is because advertisers are willing to fund it. Many marketers complain that unless consumers come to terms with this there is likely to be a huge loss not just to brands themselves but consumers too. Yet a survey commissioned by the Internet Advertising Bureau last summer showed that less than half of UK adults know that most free content online (e.g. news) is funded by ads and often the only alternative would be for consumers to pay. It is time this ceased to be a talking point just for those in the industry and was put to the consumer.