Tomkins Times – How One Indie Football Blogger Made A ‘Paywall’ Work


Ashley Norris is CEO of branded content advisory Sutro Digital and director of Anorak Publishing, including the soccer blog...

There’s an awful lot of heat at the moment about both paywalls and paid for iPad magazine apps. Yet paywalls as a concept haven’t been bothering the indie media sector too much recently.

I seem to remember gadget site Pocket Lint offering a subscription based area a few years back, but that is about it as far as charging for online content goes.

The indie sector is obviously a little coy about asking readers for cash. The theory runs that if mainstream publishers can’t make paywalls work then what hope have bloggers?

It gets messy too in that it takes a degree of technical nous to create and run a paywall system and collect subscriptions.

So can indie publishers charge for online content? Maybe. They do already for printed content. Jeremy Leslie’s wonderful Magculture blog is full of magazines from indie publishers that are at the cutting edge of both content curation and design.

It’ll be fascinating to see what happens to the Whoateallthepies – the UK’s leading sports blog which will shortly launch a printed magazine. With a circulation nudging a million monthly users it has a huge following, but will that translate into sales of printed editorial?

As for creating a paywalls for online content, well there’s one indie publisher that is making it work very well.

Paul Tomkins is the editor of a site called Tomkins Times. Created in 2009 it is completely focused on the fortunes of Liverpool FC. The difference is that unlike the thousands of other footy websites out there Tomkins Times charges readers £3.50 a month to access the site. And remarkably it has almost 2,000 subscribers.

As Paul says ‘We charged £3.50 a month for Premium and £2 for Standard. I was hopeful of a couple of hundred subscribers, just to get a steady, regular income of some sort, and maybe 500 at the most. Once we passed 500 – which was quite soon – the aim was for 1,000. We past that earlier this year. I remember fairly early on Anu (Paul’s developer) telling me that we could get 2,000, and that seemed like a crazy figure. Now it’s within sight. Traffic to the site is also growing at a strong rate. We added Google (NSDQ: GOOG) ads to the site for non-subscribers, who benefit from the free pieces, but it’s not a big money spinner

So how does Paul make it work, and what can other indie publishers (and indeed freelance journalists) learn from his experience?

1) He is an authority on his chosen niche. Several years ago Paul self-published a book about Liverpool FC “Golden Past, Red Future” and has written for both the official Liverpool FC and for various fan sites. He is an expert on The Reds, has good connections with the club and his views are widely respected by other fans.

2) He focused on building up a community not just a blog – Paul had already constructed a database of Liverpool FC fans who liked his content and were sympathetic to what he was doing. Many of these became his first subscribers. Paul has nurtured that community by constantly engaging with them.

3) He exerts rigorous standards in his community – As Paul says ‘The one big bonus has been the community that has built up behind the paywall, and the quality of their posts. People can discuss football in an intelligent manner, without spammers, trolls and wind-up merchants ruining it. So far I’ve banned just five people in over a year. We lose a few subscribers each month – some move on (as it’s not for everybody), some have money issues – but most soon come back. While there are excellent posters on most public forums, you often have to wade through the nonsense.’

4) He has a great tech partner – The paywall was the brainchild of fellow Liverpool FC fanatic Anu Gupta and his Digital Query agency. Anu offered his services for free, saying that he’d only charge if it took off. ‘True to his word, he built a site within a week, and we launched on 21st September 2009.’

5) He has not been scared to experiment – In addition to the paywall, in itself a huge experiment, Paul has created different subscription levels and has also kept a significant chunk of content available freely. ‘I still make about half of the stuff I write free to read, depending on my desire to get the message across to a wider audience, and of course, to get the balance of bringing new visitors to the site and offering value to those who subscribe.’

6) He has developed other projects – ‘It’s also allowed me to co-write and publish a new general football book – “Pay As You Play: The True Price of Success in the Premier League Era” – and not stress over how many it sells, beyond the fact that you always want your work to be read and appreciated. The royalties go, a charity for terminally ill children I’ve been promoting for a few years now – the girls who run it also have M.E., and set it up as something constructive to do when housebound and unable to do conventional work. Our book is dedicated to the memory of the 12 Post Pals children who died in 2010, although a 13th has since passed away.’

7) He judiciously uses social media – Tomkins Times is consistently updated and now has nearly 20,000 followers.

This article was reproduced from Ashley’s blog with permission.

This article originally appeared in CEO, Sutro Digital.

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