I think it’s brilliant.
As long-time readers already know, I am a fan of finding ways to provide consumers with a paid-for product.
I think that more people are willing to open their wallets than the prevailing wisdom allows, although in the past I’ve advocated charging for convenience and membership benefits rather than the content itself.
Meter content, don’t throttle it
As a blogger in the tech world, I heard a lot of people flat-out pan the New York Times‘ attempt at paid content that we all remember as Times Select.
I’ve heard conflicting accounts about why the NYT shut it down, but I do know that most of the blogosphere thought that putting high quality columnists behind a paid subscription wall stunted the conversation, and was generally against the open internet ethos.
To some degree, I think that’s a valid point. I love that anyone who can walk into a public library can read the news online from anywhere in the world.
But the Financial Times has shown us that you can accomplish that while still charging for your content. How do they do it? They’re taking advantage of the new metrics that the internet provides—thanks to IP tracking, cookies, and a number of other tools, it is now possible to determine how many times an individual visits your site.
What does that mean? It means that you can easily tell who is an active and frequent user of your site (an engaged customer) and who is just passing through. Knowing that lets you treat these customers differently, which is a classic Seth Godin strategy.
Those people who are just passing through and “joining the conversation” can be given free access, while those people who are your actual customers will be asked to pay for their content. By metering their content instead of simply throttling it like the New York Times did, FT is able to keep their content out from behind a wall while still charging for it.
That’s a neat trick.
Charging for digital benefits
Here’s the chart explaining how the Financial Times subscription model works, ganked directly from their site (click for larger image):
There are two things to note about this chart:
- You can access up to 30 articles per month without paying
- The premium membership benefits are digital tools and resources
For the Financial Times, they figure that someone who just follows a link on a blog isn’t likely to land on their site more than four times a month. And if they do, then FT would rather have them become a registered user.
Once someone is a registered user, they get access to 30 articles in a given month. Anyone who reads more than 30 articles per month, they figure, is using the Financial Times as a resource, and ought to be willing to pay.
Also, once you become a paying member, instead of getting print benefits like daily delivery, you start getting online benefits like e-mail delivery, and access to a mobile news reader, allowing you to easily browse FT content on a mobile device.
While I’m not sure that sticking the majority of your mobile readers with a crap interface is a good idea, the FT is charging for the right enhancements.
You can charge, too
Nothing the Financial Times is doing prevents other newspapers from following suit. In fact, the more newspapers that jump on board, the better it is for everyone. The trick is finding the right balance between the different levels of usership.
I think there’s a false dichotomy between newspaper audiences who will pay for content and newspaper audiences who won’t pay for content. Firstly, almost every print daily in business already has an audience who will pay for content (your print subscribers). Secondly, the Financial Times model isn’t actually about charging for content.
There’s no arbitrary division between what anyone can read and what anyone can’t read. Drawing that line was a big part of what killed Times Select. What you’re really doing is soliciting support from the people who use your site the most.
This just takes a little math. Poke through your server logs and see if there is any obvious stratification in your traffic.
Maybe you’ll find that a small but significant number of your users read almost everything on your website every week. Maybe the cut-off point for your paper is 50 articles per month. Maybe it’s 15. Do whatever makes sense with your traffic.
I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised with the results.