As publishers define their paid content models, they should not forget that news consumers that access the news across multiple platforms will be put off by confusing subscription models.
Yesterday, Jakob Nielson examined the Wall Street Journal's mobile app, which has dismal reviews on Apple's app store. He found that the problem did not lie with content, but the user interface design. For the first two access screens, the app does not indicate that paid-subscribers of WSJ's digital content are not charged for access.
Commenters have left angry reviews, unhappy at what they mistook for being charged again for digital content. The dissatisfied reviewers, according to Nielson, are the news industry's dream customers: those that have already paid for online access. Being charged again degrades the WSJ's brand in their eyes. The app only has two-stars in the app store, which could deter users from choosing it amongst the growing smartphone news options.
The WSJ is one of the few news organizations that charged for content from the beginning and has done so profitably. However, this news seems to point to conclusion that a successful paid online strategy does not mean that the mobile app will have equal success.
News consumers that read their news across multiple platforms might be put off by confusing subscription models. For example, The New York Times' digital subscription plan has no flat rate, but charges three different prices depending on how the content is accessed. Readers must pay $25 a month for mobile access, $30 a month for tablet access, and $35 a month for both. Although access to the website is included in all plans, the $10 price discrepancy turns off users that own multiple devices.
The New York Post also drew attention recently for its uneven digital strategy. Although online content is free, the app comes at a price: the monthly subscription costs $6.99. As tablet users opted to access the free site via the Internet rather than buying the app, the NYPost blocked access to the website on tablets. It was widely criticized for the move, and critics quickly pointed out that using third party browsers allowed iPad users to access the site anyway.
One newspaper that seems to have their digital strategy down is the Financial Times. All digital subscription models include unlimited mobile and iPad access. According to The Independent, the FT posted huge subscription figures earlier this year despite the cost of digital content (£250 for a year's access on the publication's website and apps). This is after Rob Grimshaw, the managing director of FT.com, significantly increased the subscription cost from the £99 price tag in 2007.
The FT's digital revenues have grown dramatically over the past year as smartphones and tablets increase in popularity. A recent survey of 2,500 FT.com users found that nearly half were accessing the site from mobile devices.
"The mobile transformation could easily be larger in scale than the shift from print to desktop and it could happen at a frightening pace," Grimshaw told The Independent. "The numbers were much bigger than any of us expected. You can only come to the conclusion that mobile will probably become the dominant channel."
If Grimshaw is right, then news organizations need to sort out their digital strategies. Charging different rates for different modes of access is not sustainable as more readers use multiple devices. Beyond that, if mobile access is free for online subscribers, it needs to be obvious or risk deterring loyal customers. Paid content models seem to be the way of the future, and all kinks need to be ironed out now.