Is The Future Freemium & Times+?

I took part in two media debates this week: as a user and a consumer. Firstly would I pay for a Freemium online computer game? And secondly would I pay to be part of Times+, the latest business model from News International? Is Freemium the real answer for media organisations who spend a fortune on creating great content? And will News International’s search for new subscriber and user pays models succeed? I don’t see many IT and telephony hardware manufacturers in the line for picking up music, tv, film, book, news and publishing awards so I really want new models to work. And this week, as a pure consumer and lover of all things online and in print, I had some choices to make.

So to Freemium. Spotify  has already proven that Freemium can work but can it be translated into other media and content? Freemium is nothing new. Partworks magazines (you know, those collectible ‘Build Your Nuclear Reactor In Ten Parts’ things…) and Panini stickers have been around for years, investing in attracting audiences with high quality free stuff to attract potentially long term paying consumers. For a while I have been playing the rather addictive FREE online footie ‘MPOG’ game SoccerManager- Its mantra; ‘Make The World’s Best Online Soccer Game And Let The World Play It For Free’. And so you do. And so you build your team. And so you get your mates involved. And so you end up at midnight worrying if you should sell Anelka for £30 million, buy that Croatian defensive midfielder and revert to 4-2-3-1. It’s a great game and one that I have been playing free for about 18 months, studiously avoiding offers for special packs, upgrades and bonus memberships.  I am not an arts student and cannot afford to spend five hours a day managing 6 different teams, in four leagues across three times zones because unlike said students I have more than 5 hours of seminars a week. However, with recent changes to the game, I had to make a decision to become a basic member, costing £11 a year, or give up some game functionality. But the quality of the game has built up a lot of credits in my mind. In other words – this was classic Freemium. You can play for free but if you want the full monty, then it’ll cost you something. On the scheme of things, less than £0.25p a week to play a game that is a pleasant distraction is not bad. So. I paid up. Yes, the freemium offer worked. And this surprised me. Once all my favourite ‘F”s had been fulfilled (functionality, fun, fashionable, fast etc.) – the decision to pay that small amount was not a big one. Out of 217,000 members, they have about 10,000 gold members paying £11 a year – so £110k of revenue. Does it pay for the site? I don’t know. But once I was loyal, once I was engaged, once I was getting my value – it’s not a big step to charging me a little. So Freemium can be Fair.

Since the spring it has been common knowledge that News International is looking at various micropayment and alternative revenue streams and my second decision of the week regarded today’s Sunday Times promoting Times+ – a variation of their existing Culture+. In essence, its a members / readers offers club you can join by either subscribing to The Times or by paying £50.  I like The Times, I like the idea of being part of their readership and I like some fancy weekend offers. So, I devoured all the information and went on line fully expecting to be signed up. Tactically – this is all a bit messy. Confusingly they refer to ‘packs’, as if this were a Sky offer. Why not just a simple Times Club, with just a few levels of membership? And for £50 a year surely the offers must be brilliant? I mean – FAIR is pretty big F-Word. Sadly, the Times+ offers are nowhere near what I would expect from a premium service, it is just a few discounts, that are OK but hardly world shattering.  And the tactical delivery was messy, seemed written by accountants and lawyers, had no sense of fun, style, charm or hook. If they look at my lifetime value, why not give me something instant just for joining? Time Magazine and The Economist do. Factoring in a self-liquidating offer into the joining cost is hardly complex marketing. From my perspective, the interesting aspect to this is the reliance on their promotional partners to help attract and keep the customer interest. Times+ is a great idea and as a fan of good media and I really want the model to work. But to attract me, it needs simplified friendly mechanics, fantastic introductory offers and unbeatable partner offers. Maybe, like my footie game, it will take time for me to adjust and join up. Freemium? Yes, I think it can work in the right places. Times+? Its a work in progress.

Author: Andrew Armour

Andrew Armour is a marketing and media professional, a specialist in business partnerships and the Founder of the consulting business - Benchstone Limited. His career spans from the UK music industry to the America's Cup, from winning agency pitches to securing key digital content deals. He is married to Viv, lives in Hampshire and works in London.

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