Wednesday, over a very tasty seafood lunch, I watched Felix Salmon spend two hours trying to convince FT.com (NYSE:PSO) managing director Rob Grimshaw to abandon his newspaper's attempts to get its readers to pay for online content. He did not succeed.
Currently, FT.com has a hybrid model whereby readers are able to view a set number of articles for free each month but required to register and then to subscribe if they wish to exceed that ration. Felix hates this model because he believes it gets the incentives all wrong: Any reader who understands the model and doesn't wish to subscribe will be careful only to click on stories that he absolutely must read, thus depriving FT of page views and ad revenue. And he has a point. While it allows FT to wring out some revenue from an area that yields many newspapers none at all, it's still a bothersome kludge that encourages readers (and bloggers, a.k.a. readers' sherpas) to frequent the sites of FT's competitors.
While watching Felix and Rob try and fail to change each other's minds, my own mind wandered in search of a compromise, a Third Way. Here's what I came up with: FT, and other like-minded newspapers, should borrow tropes from video games.
Here's how it would work: As you browse FT.com, you have a small status bar at the bottom of your screen, akin to the "life bar" in first-person shooter games that shows you how healthy or injured your character is. In this case, the status bar shows you how many free page views you have left.
Now here's the fun part: If you want to exceed your quota but you don't want to pay, there are other ways. In video games, you can usually replenish your life bar by collecting floating gold coins or stars or mushrooms or what have you; why not do the same on a newspaper site? Scatter them about randomly so that readers are rewarded for exploring different sections of the site, reading to the end of stories, etc. And extra free page views could be only one of the rewards. Readers who compile enough coins/stars/mushrooms could win all sorts of goodies: Free admission to FT conferences, lunch with an FT writer, and so on. (Or maybe this isn't such a good idea, given the evidence that performance-based rewards undermine intrinsic motivation.) Meanwhile, those wet blankets who don't want to play always have the option of handing over their credit card numbers.
Am I joking about this? I'm really not sure. It does solve the problem of misaligned incentives that so galls Felix. It gives consumers an option other than reaching for their wallets, something they're strangely allergic to doing. And there's no doubt that video-game designers understand better than anyone what it takes to keep consumers glued in front of a glowing screen for hours on end. Could this be a stupid idea with a kernel of smart in it?