Why do news websites turn customers away?

Man reading Las Ultimas Notices (photo by Diego Grez)

These days businesses can focus so much on the trees that they forget the forest.

Take the newspaper business, which has been on a death spiral for at least 20 years.

Many newspapers are not helping matters by limiting the number of online posts its readers can view for free. How many times have you received the dreaded “you’ve met your monthly reading limit”?

After receiving this message, you’re then invited to subscribe to one of many complicated combo packages. You have the choice of paper/digital, certain days of the week delivery, and so forth.

You click away from the page, right? You weren’t prepared to make such a detailed decision when you were simply trying to read about the latest advances in child car seat safety.

Why do news websites turn their customers away with this ugly, confrontational, and irritating stop sign?

The New York Times, The Washington Post, and others use this unfortunate “marketing” technique.

When they do, they’re heaping insult onto injury. You can smell their desperation. Moreover, the marketing isn’t working.

Online media may need to consider goodwill

The Washington Post, The New York Times, and others turn you away generally after you’ve read 10 stories within one calendar month. (There used to be a workaround for the NYT web site, but that was phased out in 2013.)

So what’s the best way to gain and retain customers?

Marketing, as you probably know, is all about bringing people to your products and/or services and encouraging that interest however possible. Creating goodwill is the bottom line.

So, if your ship is taking on water, you don’t want to turn away people who can help bring you relief. You want all the good press (so to speak) that you can get. Good press keeps you afloat.

As you may know, I’m not a newspaper executive. Yet I’ve helped a lot of companies with my marketing savvy.

Let’s say, for simplicity’s sake, that there are two kinds of online news readers. One wants to read the entire newspaper every day. The other kind simply sees a story mentioned on Facebook or Twitter, or another social media venue.

I’m concerned about both regular newspaper readers as well as “jumpers” (those who come to newspapers from social media). Here, I’m especially concerned about jumpers, as they’ve done nothing more than expect to read a story recommended by a friend or a respected authority.

What might be some alternatives to limiting the stories jumpers and others read? And still coax them to also become paying subscribers?

  1. Allow people to read the stories in exchange for reposting them on Twitter, Facebook, and so forth. Maybe people earn credits for reposting (or sharing) that they can exchange for a newspaper subscription.
  2. Let people post the newspapers’ affiliate links on their blogs. They get a free subscription of some kind and their readers get a special subscription deal.
  3. Use cookies to let readers know, in a pleasant way, how many posts they’ve read (and perhaps even the names of these posts) toward their limit and to encourage a really cheap introductory subscription offer.
  4. Give people a free subscription of some kind if they send in a news story tip to the newspaper. (What is a news story worth in dollars?)
  5. Give people a free multi-year subscription if they send in an editorial or op-ed piece that’s approved for online use. Again, what is a news story worth in dollars?
  6. Give people a “till.” They can put money into the till to read online stories — some minuscule amount like 10¢ a story — an amount nearly everyone can afford. The more money they put into the till, the cheaper each story is to read.
  7. Offer a briefer version of the story, along with a link that would let readers access the complete story for a small payment or a full subscription. Let these readers log in so that they can see their “progress.” There’s nothing like buy-in. When people see what they’re spending on reading stories (even if it’s 10¢) they might be encouraged to upgrade to a full subscription (pro rata, of course).
  8. Establish a newspaper consortium. People can “earn” two online newspapers for the price of one (yes, it might mean a little creative bundling) or an ebook, or 5 ebooks. Something that makes the transaction feel balanced and therefore valuable. (I realize that all kinds of copyright and permissions and money need to change hands in the scenario I just gave. But there are other options.)

Take a page from anti-ad blocker pop-ups

I’ve seen plenty of web sites respond well to ad blockers, for instance. When you log into one of these web sites with an active ad blocker, you get a very humane pop-up that says something like:

“We get it. Ads can be annoying. But ads are how we make this great content possible, and our sponsors want to know how many people see their ads and respond to them. Will you consider allowing ads on our website? Your decision won’t affect your browsing on other websites.”

There’s no reason that online news venues can’t do the same, instead of putting up a stop sign.

Why do news websites turn their customers away?: The future

There’s no question that in the foreseeable future newspapers will eventually be 100% online, or in some form that we can’t even imagine right now.

And we definitely want to support mainstream newspapers because, well, otherwise we’re stuck with unveiled news from sources such as “Addicting Info.”

So it behooves all of us to support newspapers so that they don’t go away.

In the meantime, take this as good news: applications at journalism schools are increasing.

The Columbia Journalism School reports a 44% jump from 2008, and the Annenberg School for Communication reports a 20% increase. Other schools report similar increases. (Rainey, James (April 17, 2009). “As newspapers decline, journalism schools thrive”LA Times. Retrieved 2009-04-19.)

The other part of that good news is that journalists are now being educated not just in the age-old technique of telling a good story. They are learning to use media such as video, photographs, and interactive tools that will make the brave new world of journalism richer and perhaps more relevant.

The average journalist today makes less than $40,000 for one of the most difficult and stressful jobs on the planet. Let’s hope that with new tools, journalists will draw paychecks more suitable to their education and worth to society.

In the meantime, enjoy these online newspapers and be sure to write to their editors to stop that horrible practice of limiting posts, or at least make the subscription process more expected, if not more enjoyable.

Why do news websites turn their customers away?

by susan time to read: 5 min
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