I’m usually a big fan of innovation and I am an incredibly big fan of the New York Times. I cannot imagine a world without the Times and hearing about their declining financial health has caused me a lot of anxiety. They have tried repeatedly to evolve their ad model, but in many ways they’ve gotten in their own way. For example, they ruined their big homepage units (remember the great Apple ads people turned the volume on to experience?) by selling them too frequently with uninteresting creative. Innovation has special constraints when applied to advertising, and primary is that you must honor the attention the user pays you with something they value. You disappoint the user experience at your own peril.
Case in point:
One day in 2009, I visited the Business section of the times site and found that the page wasn’t working. The articles couldn’t be opened, the photography was all black & white. After a few seconds of thinking the site was malfunctioning, the page peeled away, revealing that instead of the business page I’d been served a full page overlay of a phony business page. The day’s business news appeared, with full color photography. Why did this happen? The ad units told the story, “HP brings color to business.”
I really didn’t appreciate that trickery. So I wrote an email to Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, Jr., the publisher. I begged him not to mess with readers like that anymore. As a loyal reader, I said I would be willing to pay for online access if they would never punk me again. I asked them to calculate what I am worth to them annually on a CPM basis and just charge me that and save the ads for others. It’s worth noting that it was Sulzberger’s letter to readers about digital subscriptions on the front page last week. He heard me, he took action.
Initially, I was pleased. I really am that rare bird that wants to pay for the Times. Yeah, $15/month sounded steep, but the cost of not having the Times is, to me, higher. Then I saw the details. It’s $15/month after you’ve read 20 free articles. But articles linked from blogs or search don’t count. And then the game-player in me started thinking it through. What if people keep a couple of accounts? Or log in from different computers? Should I buy a Sunday print subscription for less than $15/month and get free digital access? If you can squeak out of paying, wouldn’t you? Of course, I wasn’t the only one thinking like this: five minutes after the initial paywall went up in Canada, so did the hack.
The Times is trying to walk a really delicate line between competing imperatives. On the one hand, they want their heavy consumers to pony up. I’m willing, I swear, and I bet there are others. On the other, they don’t want to undermine their advertising business and most of their page views come through referrers like The Huffington Post and Facebook and other aggregators. Discovery is the new search, but they also get a lot of views from the old search. They want the subscriptions to add to their bottom line, not cannibalize ad revenue. Very easy to understand, but very hard to pull off.
As any parent knows, if you’re going to create a rule, you need to be consistent. If you have a raft of exceptions, you no longer have a rule. If we’ve learned nothing else from 15+ years of the Internet, we know for sure that if people can easily get something for free, they will.
This inconsistency is further complicated by all the devices on which to consume the Times. I can read on the web for $15/month. But if I want to access it through an app on the iPad, that’s $5 more. But wait, that’s if I read on the Times app. But what if I read on the iPad’s browser? It’s a mighty fine browser. Really, who needs the app if its only extra feature is to lighten my wallet?
The other thing the Times has missed is that there is no benefit to subscribing except volume of content, which is really more theoretical than real, given the exceptions. Do I avoid advertising? No. Do I get access to valuable, exclusive content? No. Do I get discounts to advertiser products? No. So, all I get that has value is not having to feel guilty about hacking.
The Wall Street Journal subscription succeeds because the content is valuable to their audience and they consistently apply the paywall. People share WSJ content with me all the time, thinking, I suppose, that I subscribe. But because I don’t, I can only ever read the abstract. No caveats, no exceptions -- with the WSJ I know where I stand: if I want the content, I pay must for the content. (Sometimes a friend will copy the text into an email to send me; no system is perfect.)
When setting out a pricing policy, the Times made many mistakes. They made fine distinctions and failed to develop a real benefit to the audience. But having a price was not one of their mistakes. Folks, we gotta pay for what we value.
I’m sorry I got us into this.