El Tiempo shares lessons learned in charging for content

By Mauricio Romero

Bogota, Colombia


Diego Vallejo, chief digital officer at El Tiempo, recently shared with INMA members the experience of a decision that clearly marks the present and future of the business of any media outlet: establishing a paywall for its audience.

The process of this newspaper, founded in Bogota 110 years ago, began with the analysis of the challenges it would face before charging for content, starting with how to do it, Vallejo said during an INMA members-only Webinar, and taking into account:

  • The reaction of the audiences.
  • The business model.
  • The competition.
  • The possible cannibalising between the online business and that of the print, which remains very relevant for the Colombian newspaper.
Diego Vallejo, chief digital officer at El Tiempo, shared the company's paywall journey.
Diego Vallejo, chief digital officer at El Tiempo, shared the company's paywall journey.

The decision to implement a paywall was made five years ago, showing such a major change does not happen overnight. At that time, Vallejo and his team took on the task of making careful strategic planning before developing their digital business, which involved changing the centenary culture of the newspaper and facing the challenge from not only an editorial approach, but also from an e-commerce firm standpoint.

This paradigm shift, Vallejo explained, included a complete reorganisation of the newsroom, including:

  • Drawing content production objectives with depth and analysis, in such a way as to justify charging for it.
  • Changing the way the product's value offering was viewed.
  • Engaging with users beyond just thinking about generating visits volume and monetising more from the single traffic variable.

El Tiempo adopted a model in which the relationship of the media outlet with each consumer was more straightforward, he said. This meant learning other skills and behaving like a start-up (without bureaucracies).

Diego Vallejo explained how El Tiempo reorganised its newsroom.
Diego Vallejo explained how El Tiempo reorganised its newsroom.

This way of working also changed within the company, as the different work teams had to share information and learn how to work together and with a transversal approach.

During the implementation process of the technology platform, in tandem with the firm Piano, which also contributed with strategy, it was necessary to execute short cycles of iterations and sprints, Vallejo said: “It is a project that gathers different areas of the company and should be interdisciplinary. It is using all the installed capacity and people’s know-how to boost the business.”

The digital subscription project, or paywall, launched on October 23, 2020, after two failed attempts to implement it (just a few weeks before it could be launched), which resulted in learning and eventually a more powerful launch, Vallejo said.

Here are some tasks and actions during the project implementation time, despite delays, as Vallejo puts it: “We expected to go out first, before everyone else, but we ended up starting after many of our competitors.”

  • Maturing the digital transformation of the newsroom.
  • Implementation of an audience-oriented content production model, which meant knowing and managing the news agenda, as well as content generation and audience management KPIs.
  • Democratisation of data, development of dashboards, and evangelisation of those involved in the process.
  • Control tower and content indicators, with the structure of the business, marketing, and socialisation outside the newsroom.
  • Regional benchmarking and analysis of competitors.
  • Taking advantage of their close proximity to many GDA member colleagues in the region to view success stories, doing research, visiting places, attending webinars, participating in events (such as IFRA to study models in-depth and then deciding which one to choose), taking into account the environment and particularities of the brand and corporate values.
  • Adoption of a freemium approach (a mix of paid and free content) after discarding a metered model, which allows readers to consume some free articles and then prompts for a subscription to continue viewing the content.
  • Moving from a homemade model to hiring market-leading providers, which meant sacrificing previous developments in favour of the final project.
El Tiempo's paywall launched in October 2020, after five years of planning.
El Tiempo's paywall launched in October 2020, after five years of planning.

The whole process presented constant challenges, such as breaking those silos or islands within the company, for which an interdisciplinary team of approximately 60 people was created, Vallejo said.

One more constant challenge was the fear of cannibalising the print business, which in the case of El Tiempo contributes a large share of the company's revenue.

By charging, it was necessary to avoid affecting content and preventing El Tiempo from holding first place in the country in terms of traffic, according to the Comscore measurement tool.

Vallejo told INMA members the payment platform was “a process of trial and error, learning, listening to the market, and adjusting to straighten the path” in a company that revolves around leveraging first-party data from its multiple products.

About Mauricio Romero

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