Lincoln offers free access to the NYT

By Felix Salmon
March 18, 2011
Here's a way of monetizing the NYT's paywall which I have to admit I hadn't thought of: get advertisers to foot the bill!

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Here’s a way of monetizing the NYT’s paywall which I have to admit I hadn’t thought of: get advertisers to foot the bill!

I like this model a lot. I don’t know how much Lincoln is paying for this promotion: apparently the interstitial is being shown to about 200,000 regular nytimes.com readers without print subscriptions, with the intention that it will be adopted by roughly half of them. (Which goes to show how quickly people click past interstitials without reading them: this is basically free money that the other half are passing up.)

The subscription is the same one that you get for $15 a month: unlimited access to the NYT on the web and on smartphones, but not on the iPad app. If people taking Lincoln up on its offer want iPad access too, they’re going to need to pay an extra $20 per month — which I’m sure very few if any of them will do. So at the margin, this promotion is sure to further marginalize the iPad app as a source of NYT news.

If Lincoln were to pay the full $15 every four weeks from March 28 through the end of 2011, that would work out to $146 per subscriber, or $14.6 million. I’m sure that Lincoln isn’t paying that much. But even at a heavily discounted rate, the NYT is getting some healthy revenue here.

There are lots of unanswered questions here, though. Mainly: how does total revenue from Lincoln compare to the amount of revenue that the paywall would otherwise have extracted from the people shown the Lincoln ad? This promotion bespeaks a certain amount of insecurity on the part of the NYT: it’s willing to lock in Lincoln’s money now, rather than take its chances on trying to persuade a good proportion of those 200,000 people to sign up for the paywall.

The people who sign up for the Lincoln promotion aren’t handing over their credit-card numbers: they won’t automatically start getting billed when the promotion expires in 2012. And they’ll also learn that if you’re not a subscriber, you get shown offers for a free subscription. (Because I’m already a print subscriber, I’ll never see the ad.) In that sense, promotions such as these serve as an incentive not to subscribe individually.

The bigger picture here is that Lincoln is spending a large chunk of change from its advertising and promotions budget and giving it to the NYT. What’s the NYT going to do with the money? Will it consider it ad revenue, just like all the other money it gets from Lincoln? Or will it throw the money into the subscriptions bucket to make the paywall look more successful? If and when the NYT starts releasing numbers for digital subscription revenues, will they include this kind of promotion, even if brands like Lincoln would have found some kind of way of spending that money at the NYT regardless? I can imagine that debates over the success or otherwise of the NYT paywall are going to get pretty heated.

And while I’m on the subject, I have one other question about the paywall which I haven’t seen answered. The quota resets to zero at the first of every calendar month. So what happens if, say, my subscription expires in mid-July, after I’ve already used my subscription to read more than 20 articles that month? Does the paywall go flying up immediately, as soon as the subscription expires? Or do I still get 20 free articles that month — and then another 20 free articles in August? I can see why it makes sense for the NYT to tell me that I’ve read more than 20 articles and so I’m not entitled to read any more. But if I paid for those articles, why can’t I get any free articles, like non-subscribers can?

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