After years of falling revenue, some newspapers have resorted to deception to boost their subscription numbers. These dishonest tactics are sometimes called “dark patterns” – user interfaces designed to trick people.
For example, this is a Boston Globe story on Bernie Sanders:
Before you can read the article, there is a pop-up ad asking you to subscribe. By itself, this is annoying, but not deceptive. The real dark pattern is hidden at the top – the ‘Close’ button (circled in red) uses a very low contrast font, making it hard to see. It’s also in the left corner, not the standard right corner. This makes it likely that users won’t see it, causing them to subscribe when they didn’t have to.
One the ‘Close’ link is clicked, deception continues:
At the bottom, there’s a non-removable, high-contrast banner ad asking for a paid subscription. Again, this is annoying, but honest. However, the circled text “for only 99 cents per week” is not honest. It’s simply a lie, as later pages will show.
Clicking the “Subscribe now” button brings up this page:
Here, it becomes obvious that $0.99 per week isn’t the real price. It’s common for companies to have initial discounts, which isn’t itself a dark pattern. The problem on this page is that the real price is never stated. This misleads the consumer.
Clicking the “Sign Up” button reveals yet more dark patterns:
This is the first signup form. It shows the amount charged, but only for the first month ($3.96). The real price is below that, in smaller font, and made less obvious by the red highlighting on the previous line. At first glance, it looks like the same price ($3.99), but the real rate is actually $3.99 per week, while the number in red is $3.96 for the entire month. In addition, in the left column, three of the marketing email signups are checked “yes” by default, so people will subscribe without noticing.
The next page is pretty similar, it’s a standard credit card form:
And this page is the last one you see before ordering:
It isn’t visible, but this page is yet another dark pattern, because even right before the purchase it never shows the real price. To find the real price, one must click the little “FAQs” link on the right:
Then, hidden among questions about crosswords, obituaries, and horoscopes, the user has to click the circled link to discover:
Yes, the real price isn’t the $0.99 per week in the banner ad, or even the $3.99 per week in fine print on the purchase page. It’s $6.93 per week, almost twice as much as the purchase page rate, and seven times as much as the banner. Since this price only kicks in after a year, it’s almost impossible for average users to notice, unless they carefully check each and every bank statement.
If they do find out and try to cancel, they’ll discover this catch, which isn’t stated or even implied during signup:
A Boston Globe reader can subscribe online. If they have a question, they can ask over email, or through a convenient live chat service. But if they want to stop paying, they have to call and ask on the phone, no doubt after a long hold time and mandatory sales pitches. There’s no plausible reason for this, other than forcing people to pay when they’d rather cancel the service.
In the short term, these dishonest tricks raise revenue for newspapers that use them. But in the longer term, they do even more damage, by giving the whole industry a reputation for bad business practices. Cable companies can get away with it because of government-granted monopolies; newspapers won’t be able to.
As a frequenter of an online newspaper that has overloaded their frontpage with more than 30 ads, I’m honestly not sure which is worse – ad-overload, or sneaky signups! I wish neither were necessary, and I’m sure they aren’t, but the solution has yet to be found. How can valued, content-heavy publications monetize their content, without resorting to trickery and without an overabundance of ads?
that’s a bit strong, to say the least. if you actually go through the signup flow what you’re saying doesn’t really hold up.
the grey “close” button jumped right out at my TBH. And when you click on subscribe it says in huge letters that the 99 cent price is only for 4 weeks.
(i’m a former globe employee, but still!)
Just subscribed to NYT because of these things. I realize real journalism costs money but I would pay $9.99/mo at the absolute maximum. Netflix & Hulu give me many more hours of thought provoking and entertaining content at a much higher bandwidth cost to them. Not saying they need to study tech giants to derive their business strategy, but glancing that way wouldn’t hurt.
Skyler, the price is determined by addressable demand. Netflix and Hulu address much larger market segments. The NYT’s addressable market is much smaller. That’s why newspapers need to think of more novel approaches to confederation of content to increase addressable markets. I might only be interested in NYT content 1x/week or 6x/month. And that goes for 10 other newspapers.
The same supply/demand dynamic around ex ante demand (importantly at the margin, not average) can be applied to all networks and it’s the reason that without inter-network/actor settlements everything is a silo nowadays and every actor is on their own. Tremendous inefficiencies and stagnation abound at all layers and boundary points. IPv4 being but one of many such examples. The digital divide being another.
@skyler I signed up for $9.99 for NYT but they billed $49.99 the following month. Had to call in to cancel. Just a heads up!
The Globe is evil, it took me months to figure out how to stop them sending me their shitty dead tree spam that fills up my entire mailbox. (Answer, you have to phone them … and leave voicemail!)
With just about every company deceiving and lying about the truth pertaining to there programs and products, it is doubtful if we are going to rectify the problem unless we start implementing the false advertising laws that like most of our laws it’s almost impossible to get protection from these laws.
Full disclosure: I’m a former Globe intern.
Introductory subscription prices aren’t a new concept, nor are they particularly shady. Same with marketing language like “only 99 cents per week.” It’s clearly stated on the next page that it’s a trial price. Magazines and newspapers have been using these for as long as I can remember.
Opt-in defaults for newsletters aren’t great, but in this case they’re not entirely unwarranted–if you’re subscribing to The Globe there’s a good chance you’d want their bread and butter email updates. You’d have to do some reporting to determine what the design thinking there was, but the fact that all of the boxes aren’t checked supports that the designers consider this a feature/convenience.
Could this form and subscription process be better? Yes, of course. Totally agree that the $6.93 rate shouldn’t be buried in the FAQ section. Could just as easily be in that caveat below “Today’s Price.” But I’m not sure the design warrants the tone of this post.
Most print publications are similar. I NEVER provide a credit card when subscribing to a magazine or newspaper (our last NYT subscription ended in 2008) because the first-year price is substantially different than the renewal rate.
I haven’t renewed a magazine subscription in 10 years: just start new ones each year and mail a check when the bill comes.
Like cable companies and automobile insurance, these guys have not figured out the high cost of churn (I jump between AT&T & TimeWarner every 12 months and auto insurers every 24 months). I’m guessing the majority of people never notice the small increases and happily overpay.
Interesting hacker news commentary. https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=11562414
I was screwed over by the Boston Globe in just this manner. The “dark pattern” is that they never really provide you with notification that your rate is being increased or that your subscription is renewing at a much higher price. This is, at best, a deceptive practice, even though they tell you that you were told this (it;s in the fine print) somewhere when you signed up.
I will never again purchase their paper or their online publications.
It’s interesting that you compare that with cable companies. One of French cable companies was so bad at processing cancellation requests a couple of years ago that a bailiff company was offering to do it for you (basically, you paid €49 to them and they’ll bring your cancellation request in person to the company’s main office).
I have gotten around all this by simply stopping the page loading after the article text has loaded, but before the popup telling me that I need to subscribe.
from Infostack above: “everything is a silo nowadays and every actor is on their own”. Here’s an idea: A consolidator offers a basket of national newspapers (Boston Globe, NYT, Washington Post, LA Times, WSJ, etc.) with various price points (pick 3 pay X$ per month, pick 5 pay Y$ per month, etc) where the prices are a heavy discount from a direct purchase regular rate for each paper. More business for the papers that they would never get without the consolidator, and at least a minor removal of silos. Otherwise I’ll continue to patronize my local library.