Web-native companies strive to eliminate “transactional friction.” Newspapers? Not so much.
I’ve been a subscriber to the LA Times for as long as I’ve lived in Los Angeles, and I’ve watched as the big beast evolved from a gray morass of 100-inch stories to the biggest (and most profitable) paper in the U.S. in the late 90s. Which has made the last decade and a half so very hard to watch. Still, I’ve stuck by Gray Lady West through some very tough times, and I have many friends who either work there now, or have in the recent past.
As newspapers increasingly set their sights on a “digital first” strategy (despite some notorious recent flameouts), it occurs to me that they are neglecting one of the most crucial, and overlooked departments in the entire organization: circulation. I got unpleasant evidence of this when I attempted to renew my subscription to the Times.
First: a lesson in what “failure of the last mile” means: consider what goes into making a successful restaurant. You have to have a prime location. Decorate the exterior. Decorate the interior. Hire a great chef. Hire great kitchen assistant chefs. Come up with an innovative menu, with food that appeals to your core demographic. Procure the freshest ingredients. Ensure that the food prep space is clean and gets an “A” from the city inspectors. Advertise. Market. Give out coupons. Sweet-talk reviewers into coming and writing reviews. Have valet parking. And so much, much more that all leads up to the “last mile” – what the experience is like at the “touch point” where the customer actually engages with the product.
In a nutshell: all this effort in preparation to make a great restaurant counts for nothing if the waiter is snotty to the diners.
I’ve seen this in action again and again with the startups I’ve been involved with. Early on, we faced epic levels of “cart abandonment” when trying to coerce people into making a purchase, because (at the time) people were really, really reticent to type their credit card numbers, expiration dates and security codes into a browser window. Since then, we’ve obviously learned that data theft can pretty much happen anywhere. However, this hurdle was gradually overcome via the efforts of eBay, Amazon, iTunes and PayPal. All of which add layers of security, and money-back guarantees if your card gets hijacked and used to buy pallets of AK-47s in Cote d’Ivoire.
So here’s what trying to buy a subscription from the LA Times looks like. You dial a number. There’s a choppy, slow voicemail hell, with choices that really don’t seem to apply to what you want to do. There is no dedicated 800 number for renewing subscriptions – you just get dumped into the bin with people who want to report their paper getting stolen, or who want to turn it off while they go visit the grandkids. So that’s turnoff #1. Even as a dedicated subscriber, I wanted to hang up and just try the website to see if I could get a better experience. Still, I hung in there to see whether things would improve.
It took 3 steps and 2 minutes to get to a place where I could finally start to accomplish what I came for. Unfortunately, rather than talking with a human – I had to manually enter a credit card number over touch-tone. That’s Strike Two, folks. If you’re going to be giving up that kind of info, consumers kinda want to get rewarded with a human voice, particularly if they have any queries about what they’re buying and how much it costs. Which I did.
So I grimly stuck to it, even after entering my financial information, hoping to get someone on the phone to explain the rather complex choices on payment amounts and term of subscription that came on the paper bill I was mailed. Pressing the “0” button just kicked me back into the main menu. Somewhere along the line, as the frustration increased, I heard that I had to “Press 9 to Speak to a Representative.” Only, that kicked me back to the main menu as well.
Finally, I started doing “button mashing” which usually triggers a kickout script in the automated phone-tree software. Call centers have learned that when they have tortured consumers to the point where we start just randomly pushing buttons and screaming with frustrated rage, maybe it’s time for some human intervention.
Sure enough, there was a silent blip as the call was transferred to a call center. Not in India – the costs for call centers have gone up there. No, this one was to the new lowest-cost call center hub – in the Phillippines. The operator was friendly enough, but the problem started when I asked about the payment terms. Under the subscription plan they now offer, the LA Times gives me unlimited web access (which is mostly how I engage with their news product these days no surprise), and charges me about $12 every two months. But looking at the rate card I was mailed, it seemed as though they were trying to incentivize me to subscribe for 6 months or an entire year by offering price breaks for these longer-term commitments.
So sure. Maybe if you let me shave a few bucks off the bill, I’ll pay you the whole amount upfront and let you make some money off the “float” of having my entire wad of subscription money that you can earn interest on. It’s one of the ways that smart companies entice consumers into locking themselves into making a yearlong commitment.
Unfortunately, the call center operator had no earthly idea of the pricing structure for the product she was trying to sell.
After having to verify (for the 3rd time on this now 15-minute call) my phone number, address, name, credit card number, etc., just asking how much I was going to pay flummoxed this person. I was quoted three different prices for the subscription I now have. I corrected the operator a couple of times, and finally after teaching her about the product she was trying to sell, got to the bottom line.
I can pay $12 every two months for the next year. Or I can pay $83 up front to “lock in” the subscription price.
Let’s do the math here.
If I pay every two months, that’s six payments a year, right? Simple math: 6 payments x $12 = $72 a year.
And you want me to pay $83 upfront in one lump sum? How does that make financial sense? I’d be paying MORE for a yearlong subscription rather than saving a few bucks.
The operator stammered and then went back to the script of “locking in the subscription price.” Well, is the price going to go up then? No. I don’t know. Maybe.
By how much? I don’t know. When? I don’t know. But it might. Is there anyone else I can talk to about this? Not right now.
OK, at this point, I hung up. Deconstructing this entire experience, from a webconomics point of view, this is an absolute disaster. The LA Times has made it difficult and frustrating for existing subscribers to attempt to continue to be subscribers. They’ve cut costs in their circ department by outsourcing all the call center jobs to places where ill-trained people stumble over what should be easy points. And finally, their pricing structure makes no sense once you drill down and work the numbers for yourself. And the numbers are completely different on the web, in the mailers, according to the people on the phone. The price just keeps changing!
This makes it impossible for the end-user (i.e. subscriber) to trust the prices that we’re being given. Yeah, it’s only a few bucks, but come on, now. You guys know – or SHOULD KNOW – how consumers react when they start to suspect that someone else is getting a better deal.
I’ve written at length over the years about the migration from an ad-supported revenue model to a subscription-based model (AKA “paywalls”). The jury’s still out on how well this is going to work out for the newspaper industry; yes, the New York Times, Financial Times and Wall Street Journal are often cited as success stories (although detractors point to weaknesses in their underlying dynamics). News organizations across the board are looking to ways that they can support themselves by charging subscriptions to access their material.
This only works when that transaction is quick, easy and painless.