One week with NYTimes: Paying out of appreciation

I subscribed to The New York Times’ digital plan last week. I’d come to the realisation that I often find myself reading their articles and should therefore pay for something I find valuable. As with many newspapers, NYT has a limit of 10 articles a month for non-paying users. Of course this can be easily bypassed with Chrome’s incognito mode, but I wanted no restrictions. I’ve been thinking about this idea of paying for services we don’t strictly need to over the last few days, and asked the Hacker News community with not much of a response.

Upon first logging into the Times website at my desktop I was amazed at the vast wealth of content. This wasn’t clear to me as a non-paying user, and NYT should do more to make this apparent to prospective subscribers. As you’d expect there are the general News sections, ‘Business’, and ‘Opinion’. I love that ‘Technology’ and ‘Science’ are separate entities, and ‘Health’ often piques my interest. I dip into ‘Art’, ‘Travel’, ‘The Upshot’ and ‘The Magazine’ for longer, slower reads.

What I hadn’t expected, was how brilliant the Times’ mobile app would be. It has all of the same content as above, only in a neat, easily navigable package. Content loads quickly; images render as sharply on my iPhone as they do on my home monitor, and I have no problem playing back some of the engaging video NYT manufactures.

I don’t think I’ve had this kind of experience with a media platform before, except maybe National Geographic who also produce brilliant content and take great care in ensuring it looks fantastic online. (Take for instance an article published last year on the Palaeolithic diet, which I read in both print and online.) There’s definitely a sense that a lot of effort has gone into making using the Times’ site and app as effortless for me as possible, but on top of that, making it something I love and want to use.

Despite now paying for a subscription to the content I love, Facebook recently announced their intent to host articles from NYT and National Geographic, among others. For mobile users, some articles will launch inside the Facebook app, instead of in a new browser window; the ultimate goal here is speed. According to a statement made by Facebook, this should allow articles to load up to 10x faster. Product Manager at Facebook, Chris Cox said, “We’re starting with something that we think is going to work for some publishers for some articles and for some business models… We’re not trying to go, like, suck in and devour everything.” My instant reaction was that Facebook had created something truly innovative, but then I began to question how this might affect subscription rates. From what I’ve read, I don’t get the impression the publishers are concerned, but will use this tool to compliment their online presence.

I’ve been reading Dale Carnegie’s ‘How to Win Friends and Influence People’ and have taken much from it, most notably Chapter 3 which concludes with the message, ‘Arouse in the other person an eager want’. Only the best marketers can do this. The reason I subscribe to the Times isn’t because their articles limit makes it marginally less convenient for me to read the content I like, but because it’s a service that I want to use and deem worthy of payment. The same goes for the movies I watch. Of course I could download a pirated copy of the latest Mad Max film, and cover any trace of me having done so, but I want to pay to see it in the cinema as a token of my appreciation for the hard work that went into its making. (One might argue that a major benefit of seeing a film in the cinema is the sound and picture quality, which is virtually impossible to replicate in one’s own home.)

Many software companies have free tiers for their products, which come with limited features or usage caps. Atlassian’s Bitbucket free tier and pricing model has worked well, but Slack seems to have found a strong balance. I don’t get the impression that Butterfield is concerned that the product won’t sufficiently monetise, especially when a subscription costs just $7 per month per user. That said, I’m sure many companies will abstain from payment despite the productivity and efficiency gains they’ll undoubtedly experience.

For consumers, it comes down to whether you think the product is worth paying for, but for businesses the stakes are a little higher, and the motivations are probably a bit different. With a product like Slack, other than time saved, I can see how small to mid-level businesses might struggle to judge what gains in productivity are doing to their revenue, or whether these gains are even attributable to the product itself. Enterprise applications therefore need to better show their customers what the benefits of using their products are, both before and during use. It astonishes me that Slack doesn’t generate a summary of group usage data, or have any kind of management dashboard with usage and performance metrics for its non-paying business users.

All kinds of companies have the ability to make me want to use their product, but so often choose to employ some devious marketing scheme to pressure me into buying. Undoubtedly the best products are the ones that don’t convince or persuade, but prove to me that I’d benefit from using them, and as a customer that’s the best way to make me want them.