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After jumping through enough ad hoops, a paywalled circus begins

Advertisers don’t want to advertise to women in their 50s, and that was a problem for online startup The Hoopla. Now the business will shift to a risky revenue model derived from the audience.

A week from today, The Hoopla will test the dedication of its audience: it’s asking them to cough up to keep reading the site. In a media landscape filled with rivals such as Mia Friedman’s Mamamia, Fairfax’s Daily Life and even Private Media’s Women’s Agenda, the Hoopla will be one of the first to launch a paywall in Australia.

After the introductory offer ends, a yearly pass will be $120, with a novel 99c-a-day pass available to people who only want to read the one thing. Priced like that, The Hoopla is taking a risk. But, as CEO Jane Waterhouse told Crikey last week, she and Hoopla editor-in-chief Wendy Harmer believe much of their loyal following has moved from “liking us to needing us”.

It’s not hard to argue that The Hoolpa’s content is unique. When the site launched three years ago, it aimed to speak to older women aged 35 and up. Too much content in this area was focused on raising children, the thinking went, and for many of The Hoopla’s audience, their children are now well and truly grown up, if they had children at all. Informed by the interests of its audience, The Hoopla has more politics than fashion, more media criticism than celebrity gossip, more book reviews than TV recaps.

This is content its audience want, Waterhouse says. But it’s not always content that’s been easy to monetise with advertising.

The brutal fact is that we can no longer survive on advertising alone,” she said when announcing the paywall. When it comes to women aged 35-plus, advertisers have been slow to cotton on to the buying power of such consumers.

This isn’t to suggest there’s no advertising money invested in that market. But about 80-90 cents in the ad dollar currently goes towards targeting people aged 16-54, says Steve Allen, the managing director of Fusion Media, who tells Crikey it’s still very hard to get advertisers to concentrate on older demographics.

Partly, it’s because most of the people booking ads aren’t baby boomers themselves … and that’s a major problem,” he said. When it comes to actual spending power, the post-World War II rise in house prices has put many baby boomers in a fantastic position. But for the most part, they’re ignored, despite their disposable income.

This isn’t the only problem faced by The Hoopla, Waterhouse said: “When we launched, there was no one else online talking directly to this demographic of women. And then, Daily Life launched. Because of being part of Fairfax, they can play a numbers game we can’t. And a majority of advertisers still look at that numbers offering. We always built our site on engagement, but the numbers were always smaller than Daily Life’s.”

With this, the small amount of ad money for the sector went to Fairfax. The Hoopla’s management decided against chasing page views. Instead, they built up their audience and their stable of writers, with an eye to perhaps putting up a paywall at a later point. “Ideally, we thought, we’d get some traction in the area and then the loyalty, and see where that takes us,” Waterhouse said.

She’s hopeful it’ll give the editorial team freedom to pursue new areas in their writing. “When your audience is your advertiser, your content is dictated around your advertiser’s needs,” she said. “Our audience will always be our readers. So, our content will be dictated by what they want to read.” The site has announced two new journalists — one in Beirut and one in the United Kingdom. “We’re hoping to take a more global approach in terms of our content,” Waterhouse said.

Since the announcement, she says most of the reaction has been positive: “People are saying it’s brave, they’re wishing us luck. They hope it works, because then more journalists and writers will get paid.” D-Day is next Monday.

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