is a blog about design, technology and culture written by Khoi Vinh, and has been more or less continuously published since December 2000 in New York City. Khoi is currently Principal Designer at Adobe, Design Chair at Wildcard and co-founder of Kidpost. Previously, Khoi was co-founder and CEO of Mixel (acquired by Etsy, Inc.), Design Director of The New York Times Online, and co-founder of the design studio Behavior, LLC. He is the author of “Ordering Disorder: Grid Principles for Web Design,” and was named one of Fast Company’s “fifty most influential designers in America.” Khoi lives in Crown Heights, Brooklyn with his wife and three children. Refer to the advertising and sponsorship page for inquiries.+
My complimentary ‘digital subscription’ to The New York Times is coming to an end, so I just ponied up the equivalent of US$195 for a year’s renewal. For obvious reasons, I’m emotionally invested in The Times’ survival, and in fact would like to see it prosper for generations to come. But the process of renewing was unpleasant and left me angry, and it wasn’t even about how expensive it was.
The problem is that it’s so difficult for a customer to determine which of the many subscription choices really offer the best value.This is true even for a customer like me, who is dedicated to the brand, technically proficient and a former employee of the company.
In the run up to my subscription expiring, the company had been sending me promotions that were urgent in their warnings but exasperating in their vagueness. Each email was unequivocal about the number of days that remained in my subscription, but the renewal rates were only hinted at. I could have the first eight weeks for 99¢, but that was obviously just an introductory rate.
When I clicked through on the offer, there was still no way to know what I’d be paying after those first two months were up, unless I logged in with my user account. When I did so, only then did I find out that the regular rate is US$3.75 per week. Who prices this stuff by the week?! In fact, even the company seemed unsure about measuring its subscription rates this way, as it occasionally referred to it as US$15 for every four weeks, which is still not the most straightforward way to calculate a subscription that you expect to run for a year. There was no true monthly rate listed, or even an annual rate. And what’s more, small print warned me that ‘applicable taxes’ apply — even though this is a purely digital subscription — so there was literally no way to determine the true cost of the subscription using the site itself.
All of this was for the Web site-plus-smartphone app package. There was also a Web site-plus-tablet app package on offer for US$5.00 a week — why one is more expensive than the other, I have no idea. If I wanted a package that covers everything, Web site, smartphone app, and tablet app, the cost would have been US$8.75 per week. Note too that to reveal these rates, I had to hit the back button in my browser to return to the offer page and log in again each and every time.
The total customer experience here is haphazard at best, and, at worst — I hate to say this because I am still friendly with many people at the company, but in truth there’s no way around it — it’s insulting. It shows a certain amount of disrespect to customers for a company to choose not to present a full accounting of available offers, displayed plainly and in an easy-to-compare chart, so that anyone can fully understand all of the options and decide quickly.
Why would it be so hard to be as explicit that? I ask that rhetorically, but from my experience as an employee I remember exactly why: The Times as a business remains both in thrall of and a prisoner of its old print mathematics, wherein pricing for delivery of the physical newspaper was complicated and subject to frequent and fleeting special promotions. By design, print subscribers were never sure if they were getting the best deal on their subscriptions, and that mentality has transferred over to its digital business. The result is sadly hostile to those looking to subscribe digitally, and gives the unmistakable impression that the company is gaming its customers.
Just for comparison, here’s how some other digital businesses price their products: Netflix is US$8 a month. Spotify is between US$5 and US$10 per month. Evernote is US$5 per month or US$45 per year. Birchbox is US$10 per month. Hulu Plus is US$8 per month. Flickr is US$25 per year. MLB.tv is US$25 per year. And so on. There is really no good reason that pricing for The New York Times couldn’t be as simple as that.+