Why I Had to Break Up
With the New York Times

March 1, 2016

Why Subscriptions Work

Yesterday morning, a big shiny notification went up on my iPhone screen: “Cancel your New York Times subscription”. It’s the end of the 12th week for their “limited time” offer of $0.99 a week, and given the fact that I hadn’t opened the app in over a month, it was clear I wouldn’t pay $15 a month starting next week. Because it’s never easy to cancel anything, I picked up the phone and called their customer service line. Brian, a quiet-voiced support representative with a subtle Midwestern accent, picked up the phone.

“How may I help you?”, he politely asked. “My 12-week special has ended and I wanted to cancel my subscription”, I replied. “Ummm.” he muttered, “I see you are eligible for half price, would you like that?” “Nah…I’m good”, I replied, “I don’t really read it anymore. I kept it because of the $0.99 deal”. “I see you are eligible for another 12 month at $0.99, would you like that?”

I was hooked again. For a brief second, I actually thought I won, that I had challenged the system and received a lower price as my reward. But as the minutes flew by, I realized I was planning on spending nothing at all, yet here I was paying $4 a month for an app I never use. “Damn”, I thought to myself, “I’m using Skype more than this and I never thought about going Pro. Is it because of the $0.99? Maybe I’ll actually start reading the New York Times if I pay for it.”

New York Times Subscription Promotion

Relationship Status: Complicated 

My relationship with the New York Times app has been pretty complicated. It all started after Ben, a mutual friend, introduced us, the Times with it’s award winning journalism, and me with my love of all things news app. Ben was my roommate, and he’d been reading the New York Times for quite a while. One day, after Ben went to sleep early, the New York Times and I found ourselves alone for the very first time. We stayed up until 4 A.M., and when the sun came up we already exchanged information and started our own relationship.

For less than a dollar a week, it was a no-brainer. I didn’t need to give up anything else in my life, and I gained a relationship that taught me something new every day. It was exhilarating, we spent long hours every night, and didn’t even feel awkward riding the subway together the next day. The New York Times always had something new to tell me. And me? Well, I was a really good listener.

But like most relationships, the good times didn’t last; I started a new job that demanded an increasing amount of my time. When I did get home, I was too tired to do anything other than watch TV, and before too long we weren’t spending any time together at all. The New York Times was great, but I just didn’t have enough time to appreciate it.

My friends all loved the New York Times, though, so for such a low cost it just seemed easier to let everyone think we were still in love. The app got buried by newer, shinier apps, and I just kept ignoring the Times every time it sent a vibrating alert. Of course, I could have ended it, but every once in a while we had our rendezvous. Lonely nights, boring work assignments, it seemed stupid to let all of our histories go away.

Why was I so hooked? Why couldn’t I just let go? There are three main ingredients to every great subscription service, and the New York Times has it all. 

  1. A low barrier to entry: It’s true that in the long-term game a one-time payment is cheaper, but very few of us can actually predict how long we’ll be using a product. We prefer to feel as though we are in control of how much we are going to spend. Most of us wouldn’t think twice about spending $0.99 to try a new product, which is exactly where the second ingredient comes into play.
  2. A low monthly fee: Small fees fly under our radar. We never pay too much attention to them while going over our bank statements. If the New York Times was charging $4 a month rather than $.99 every week I don’t know how long our relationship would have lasted. Some weeks I get my money’s worth while other weeks I don’t.
  3. A high perceived re-entry fee: This is the most interesting part about subscriptions in my eyes, as it basically counters the first. Subscriptions have very low entry points, but a very high perceived re-entry point. Technically, I could just cancel my subscription and re-subscribe every time I want to read something. It would probably be cheaper, but for $0.99? In today’s world, the work of spending five minutes on the phone, or filling out some information online makes the perceived convenience fee worth it.

Subscriptions are relationships, and relationships are much less rational than one-night stands. It’s through relationships that we fall in love with products, we learn to rely on the smallest of features, and are willing to endure the worst parts in order to use it. Three months from now, a big shiny notification will go up on my iPhone screen. When I call Brian and tell him it’s time to break up, he’ll probably give me a reason to stay for another 12 weeks.