Big changes are afoot for News U.K. In just over a week, The Sun will scrap its paywall and rebuild its digital audience to become a mass-reach player once again.
The pressure to monetize via online advertising revenues is high, and with so many new media entrants competing for the same ad budgets, agencies are ruthless in picking their partners.
Dominic Carter, who was promoted to managing director of commercial at News U.K. five months ago, has since been sorting the game plan. He spoke to Digiday about his commercial strategies across The Sun and The Times, including plans to bolster its digital sales team and to emulate Unruly’s digital startup culture to arm itself in the cut-throat media landscape.
How are you preparing for The Sun’s paywall coming down?
I’ve been reviewing the organizational structure for the commercial teams, because the sales proposition when behind a paywall is obviously very different. Previously, the teams were more integrated, whereas now I’m building out a much bigger digital team. Currently, we’re at 16 digital people, and we’ll double that in the next six months. Also, your ad tech capabilities have to be better to ensure we can plug in more programmatic revenue.
You plan to scale programmatic?
It’s one way of monetizing but not the panacea for success. Our objective is more direct conversations and plugging Unruly formats into the business to ensure we’re making the most of opportunities around video.
How else does Unruly figure in your plans?
We want to learn from Unruly’s digital startup culture. We want The Sun to have a startup culture in our approach to the market. There are cultural things we can learn from Unruly such as being prepared to experiment more, fail fast and plan in shorter cycles. You can have a two-year plan, but in reality, the tactics will change more frequently, and we need to build that into the way we work as an organization.
There are more digital media competitors than The Sun’s pre-paywall days. Does that concern you?
The main challenge will be balancing protecting our legacy print business, which still attracts millions of daily readers, while growing our digital footprint. The world of digital has changed, but the point of The Sun is, it’s the voice of Britain. We’ve found since opening up part of the paywall in July that there is still big appetite for The Sun content online. We can make a lot more of this product and brand than before we went behind a paywall.
What insights do you have from being behind paywalls for The Sun and The Times?
Having had logged-in users, we understand more the reasons why people churn and also how they like to engage with brands. We can use that and apply it to how we shape the products. We need to be more sophisticated with data and put data at the heart of everything we do, which we probably haven’t been. There is a lot of insight we have collected, from The Sun and The Times paywalls. We know how they respond to ads; we know things like time of day and device preferences. But what we haven’t ever done is turn that into usable data for advertisers, and my intention is to ensure we do in future.
Are you concerned The Sun will be more vulnerable to ad blocking post paywall?
We watch it. The main priority is to grow The Sun’s digital audience, but we must be mindful of ad blocking because advertising is a fundamental part of how our business makes money. The industry has a responsibility: don’t troll people around the Web, and ensure the consumer experience is good in terms of speed of content delivery, relevance and context of advertising.
Do you liaise much with your U.S. titles?
Half our business is subscription-based around world, and half is free; we play in both camps. In the U.S., we have the New York Post [free] and Wall Street Journal [subscription], and in Australia we have News.com.au [free] and The Australian [subscription]. So we share a lot, and I can see what works there in terms of internal structures. They have made their mistakes, and we have made ours, and we have each corrected them. So we have a pretty good idea of what now works best.
To stay on top of your game, you must be in the process of constant self-improvement. You can’t have people sit back and think, ‘I know my stuff.’ So those are probably some of the mistakes. I’ve had to bring in new ad-ops people in the last few months because the world has changed.
What’s the toughest thing about your job?
Managing expectations of people, whether it’s my peer group, those who work for me or my bosses. We have an ambition to grow, and I fully intend for us to, not just with The Sun but overall revenue, because I’m unlikely to grow enough on The Sun alone in the next six months to offset any declines I might see in the legacy business. Getting people in the right mindset to believe overall growth is achievable is hard.