Selling Attention – the New York Times paywall, Lincoln, Chuck, Subway, and the Washington Post redesign

This week I’m actively selling attention. Others have sold it for me in the past, every time I read an article with an (ignored) ad next to it, but now the purchasers are making their requests explicit and obvious. And I like this way better, at least while there aren’t too many buyers.

  • Lincoln, an existing advertiser with The New York Times, has targeted 200,000 heavy readers of the newspaper’s website with an offer to sponsor their digital subscription for 2011. – I almost didn’t read this offer. It came up as an interstitial, between the homepage and the article I wanted to read, so the first two times I clicked by without actually seeing it. Then I belatedly noticed it had said something about the NYTimes paywall, went back and looked at the banner version on the NYTimes homepage, and clicked through to accept a gift from a brand that is basically irrelevant to me.

    It’s not that I’m not a good target demographically – MBA students fit “‘thought leaders’ in a younger-age bracket” and “the kind of consumers who are interested in the newer Lincolns” pretty much perfectly, I’d guess – but personally I don’t expect to buy a car in the next five years, and if I did it would be chosen for function not luxury. I feel a little weird about accepting the offer, and now feel some obligation to find out something about Lincoln to be sure I’m not dismissing it unreasonably. Reciprocity is a powerful trick (“techniques used in advertising and other propaganda whereby a small gift of some kind is proffered with the expectation of producing a desire on the part of the recipient to reciprocate in some way”).

  • Chuck vs the delicious Subway sandwich – Chuck has been my favorite TV show for the past several years (funny, geeky, and the geeky stuff sometimes saves the day). It has repeatedly been almost-canceled, and one of the things that saved it was a relationship with Subway – aggressive product placement led to a fan campaign in which the show’s star participated (demonstrating to Subway that its sponsorship led to sales), which then led to more aggressive product placement.

    But they deliberately make the product placement stand out (not like the “oh, hey, it’s Windows Phone 7 and we’re going to linger on the phone for a really long time for no reason” placement I saw elsewhere this week), and they make it a joke all the fans are in on. One review commented, “I don’t know who is ever against product placement because every time the people at Chuck mention the greatness of Subway, I find it hilarious.” I’m aware I’m being sold, and yes, the next time I see a Subway around breakfast time I’ll try to go buy the relevant product, because I appreciate their sponsoring content I love.

  • The Washington Post redesign – I’ve been reading the Post almost every day for 19 years, 13 of those online. I’m not a fan of the redesign. The links are black, making it harder for me to scan for things I can click on to get more information. They used all-caps for a long headline. It took me several days to pick out where they’d put the sections of news I care about and what parts of the page I could safely ignore. But most of all, that first day made it very clear what one thing I was supposed to do when I arrived on the homepage: click on the ads. This on a day when the main headline was about nuclear catastrophe.

    washingtonpost.com screenshot

    They’ve since added back photos to the top content area, so it’s not quite so much “there’s some boring black and white stuff and – ooh, shiny, a brightly colored ad! and another!” but it still looks visually like the right column, with ads and links, is the dark-colored important area. I’ve taught myself to be pretty ad-blind (see above about not reading the Lincoln offer), and the design makes it harder to ignore the ads in favor of the content that brought me to the site. The ads aren’t helping provide the content I want: they’re getting in the way of it. I’m the product being sold, and the Post isn’t even winking at me as they sell me. This isn’t the way I want to see sponsorship go.

There are plenty of issues with patronage models. Editorial independence is a big deal. But while selling lots of little ads preserves independence better, it’s much more demanding for the reader/watcher in terms of cognitive load. I’d rather have one sponsor; then I know whose influence I might have to discount – I’m used to that model from white papers, stadium names, and opinion columnists. With one sponsor, I know who I’m selling my attention to, and I can decide without too much difficulty how much weight I want to give their coin.

About Jennifer Berk

I'm an analytics and data leader with a marketing and product mindset. I like online newspapers, science fiction and fantasy, and ugly fish.
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