Lowering the Great Wall: how South China Morning Post’s Web site went from closed to metered


The National Intelligence Council announced last week that China will surpass the United States as the world’s No. 1 economy by 2030. That’s barely 18 years away, only as far forward in time as Elton John’s “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” is backward in time.

Are we ready for that?

The kids that grew up watching Disney’s “The Lion King” are now in their late teens. By 2030, their own children will probably watch the same classic movie their parents did, maybe in Mandarin, if their parents are eager to nurture international citizens. After all, great content and strong brands endure the test of time.

At South China Morning Post, we’ve got a brand people trust and content they want. Sitting on the freer edge of China, our Hong Kong location puts us in a great position to satisfy a world hungry for China news.

With our corner of the globe on an upward trajectory, we view the next 18 years as a huge opportunity. But to cater to this worldwide audience, we have to be digitally ready.

A landmark move took place a few months ago when we rebuilt our Web site, SCMP.com.

We improved the design, content, and functionality. The addition of special interest bloggers — including China’s top blogger in his sole English translated blog — a 10-year archive, great graphics, glossy magazine sections, plus video and photo sections, and a mobile edition were added to a raft of other enhancements.

We’re well-poised to be China information central.

But there was a rather large obstacle to our plan. The great wall. Behind a closed paywall, search engine crawlers can’t see us. And our content could never go viral because subscribers could never share it with non-subscribers.

We needed to do something we have never done before: Open up our paywall. After more than 10 years of subscriber-only access, while most other newspapers have been moving from free to paid, we’ve just done the exact opposite.

There were no previous models that went from paid to free to help us navigate our new path. But, learning from other metered paywall models, we decided to offer four free articles for any user, plus four more if they registered their details (providing us a “warm” future subscriber database).

We calibrated the number of clicks based on a level we felt would protect our subscriptions, but would give enough of a taste to whet the appetite of new users. And most importantly, we’re now searchable and shareable.

This gave us an interesting marketing challenge: How to attract new visitors and increase site traffic to boost ad revenue, without jeopardising valuable existing subscriber revenue.

Our marketing campaign took on two phases.

  1. We rebuilt the site in August and promoted it actively to our existing subscribers, but did not open the meter until mid-October. That gave us six weeks to consolidate our existing and lapsed subscriber base by offering enticing subscription and renewal deals, locking in as many as possible before the free appetiser frenzy began. 

    During this period our campaign, entitled “re:born,” was implemented. With the focus on a completely new site, great functionality, and improved content, we reinforced our strength to our existing lapsed subscribers and secured a dramatic increase in subscriptions, exceeding our target of 10% growth for the year.

  2. The second phase of the campaign took place when the meter was in place. The theme was “Make Every Click Matter,” a play on our brand tagline, “Make Every Day Matter.” We were now offering “More news, more views, and more free access.”

    We promoted heavily outside of our own print and dotcom environment to drive new eyeballs. We leveraged search engines, outdoor, SEM, paid online media, social media, and TV.

The result of our launch was a twofold increase in page views and a threefold increase in unique visitors. Our traffic continues to increase, but we especially notice a step change in page views when there is a big news item — content drives clicks, after all.

We noted that our paid online media was driving up to 10% of the traffic. Aside from the strength of search traffic, there was notable traction from Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and campaign micro-site placement of our TV spot and mobile media ads.

Additionally, there was traffic from our two new e-newsletters, SCMP Today and SCMP News Wrap. The morning newsletter gives the headliners for the day, and the evening newsletter is an edited wrap, telling you what you missed, what’s trending, and the editor’s viewpoint. More reasons to click.

We certainly have had success with this model. But it’s not time to sit back and enjoy the ride. We’ve got to prep ourselves for the next 18 years, and beyond.

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