My advice to the New York Times? Copy Foursquare.
Last week, as the media blogosphere analyzed the announcement of a paywall at the New York Times, I was more fascinated with another recent obsession of mine: Foursquare.
Foursquare, a mobile app that allows users to “check in” when they visit businesses, doesn’t seem to have much in common with the Old Grey Lady. However the features that make Foursquare a runaway iPhone hit could also help the New York Times successfully make the leap behind the paywall.
The real dilemma of the Times is a financial problem, but the paper also has a branding issue. Papers like the Wall Street Journal and The Economist can successfully charge readers due to high-level business content. On the flip-side, there may be a case for local niche sites to rely on a paywall or donations, as high-quality local content is hard to come by.
However, the Times occupies a bit of a grey area between the two extremes of that spectrum. Its content is considered highbrow by most but not specialized enough that it can’t be found anywhere else.
Therefore, I propose The Times leverage its upscale brand and borrow a page out of Foursquare’s playbook. The paper should offer rewards, both physical and digital, for user participation allowing users to show off that they read the Times and are thus educated and concerned about worldly affairs.
If Foursquare can turn going out for a burger into a competition, why can’t The Times do the same for in-depth news?
Much like going out to dinner, reading the Times is a status symbol. My friends may see me going out every night on Foursquare and assume I’m a social butterfly. Those same friends can see the articles I’m reading in The New York Times and assume I’m an intellectual.
The Times could keep its content behind a paywall – after all, as an intellectual such things are worth my money – while having each user act as a one-person content marketing machine blasting their activity on nyt.com to friends.
In my fantasy Foursquare/NYT hybrid, picture an updated user account system (see an example of Foursquare's here) that keeps track of my activity on the site, awarding my points for various actions and then rewarding me based on the points I have occurred.
Think most adults will balk at such a system? Then you haven’t seen Farmville’s user numbers.
Foursquare offers badges and anoints people the “mayor” of places they visit frequently. Here is what the New York Times could offer to make being a paid member fun and useful.
Expert events – Those who constantly get comments approved in certain subjects will be anointed “experts”. The Times could throw exclusive (and revenue-generating) events where the Times hosts a well-respected intellectual to discuss and debate issues with readers.
Badges – Foursquare offers virtual “badges” that are awarded based on locations visited and the Times could have similar rewards for participating on its website.
Points as online currency – Designate a point total for online actions and allow users to spend the points for discounts on subscriptions, the Times’ Wine Club and events.
Blast to social networking – Allow detailed blasting of reading habits to Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Tumblr and other status-based platforms.
Device reader – Give away a free mobile application that requires a paid subscriber log in to access exclusive features like the Times Reader layout or integration of GPS with the status updates (i.e. Sean is reading “Obama to Offer Aid for Families in State of the Union Address” at 34th Street Station).
Unlocked RSS feed - Allow paid users to have a full-text RSS feed.
Activities to track:
When I read a story –The Times could keep track on when I click a link and spend longer than 30 seconds on an article page. The system would then add a link to my profile that reads “Sean has read ‘2 Key Senators Oppose a Second Term for Bernanke’” with an option of pushing the story to my Facebook profile so all my friends can see what I’m reading. By tracking what stories I’ve read, the Times should also be able to better recommend stories to me.
When I comment – As I comment on stories, the system should reward me slightly for commenting, but even more so for getting a comment “approved” by other users.
The Times could keep track of users that have highly-rated comments and sort them by subject field, giving badges or recognition to those who were deemed knowledgeable by the community on topics as broad as politics or as narrow as the New York Jets. The Times could then deem users “experts” and give them special access and chats with the writers that cover their niche.
When I retweet – Link Twitter accounts to nyt.com usernames and give points to users that retweet stories. Penalize if the ratio of New York Times-related tweets is not balanced with other tweets to prevent spamming and gaming the system.
When I submit a tip – Allow readers to submit tips from their profile pages that get entered into a section editor’s mailbox in the morning. Users that produce tips that result in articles getting published receive points and a “tipster” badge.
Letters to the editor – Space in the paper is limited, so landing a letter to the editor is the ultimate stamp of approval for a user. As anyone who has ever had an letter published in the Times would tell you, this proves your ability to form a well-written opinion worthy of the Times’ editorial pages (and worth bragging to your friends about)
When I refer my friends – When I push a link to Facebook, modify the URL so The Times can track what user is bringing in the most readers though his or her reading habits. If I refer a friend that ends up signing up for a paid account, I should receive a discount on my next year of subscription.
When I subscribe to the print edition – Unless the Times wants to mail eye trackers to every reader, it will be unable to track what readers read in the print edition. Give print subscribers a general bonus as well a special designation in the comments.
Admittedly this is idea still forming, but the philosophy has been around for years: offer customers rewards for their loyalty. Tote bags and archive access won’t cut it anymore and news companies should be forced to think differently.
After all, is it any less crazy than a metered paywall?