Netflix wants to make it easier for people to cancel subscriptions. For people who aren’t using the streaming service, Netflix will proactively ask them if they want to cancel. And if someone doesn’t confirm they want to stay, Netflix will automatically cancel their account.
That’s awesome. How many newsrooms would do that?
Hell, a lot of newsrooms won’t let you cancel online, even when you sign up online.
The New York Times makes you call to cancel. Wall Street Journal does too. And the Seattle Times. Other papers go to great lengths to hide meaningful information on how to cancel.
There is no long-term value in forcing people to stay for the sake of a few bucks.
Know how when you go to CVS, buy two or three items small enough to fit in your pocket, and then they hand you that 5 foot receipt? Wait until you see how long it takes to find the newsletter opt-out link for the New York Times.
However, the Times deliberately hides the unsubscribe option so deep, it’s not realistic that anyone will use it.
Dark patterns are hostile to readers
In the last post, I showed how The New York Times uses dark patterns. Dark patterns are design tricks that manipulate people to do something they might not do otherwise.
A great example of a dark pattern is Amazon’s process for deleting your account. This short video shows the ridiculous lengths Amazon makes a person go through. Software designers call this a “roach motel’. You can enter, but you can never leave.
Roping people without their permission is hostile to readers. Also, forcing people into something they didn’t explicitly choose pollutes your metrics. If you rustle up every reader that passes by, you learn less about what convinced them to sign up. I’m more interested in hearing what people actually want to receive.
How low can the Times go to hide a simple newsletter opt-out link?
As I detailed before, when a reader creates a new Times account, there’s a screen that asks if you want to subscribe to any newsletters.
It looks like this:
I highlighted the top part, because this is where The New York Times tells you they are subscribing you to “The Morning”. You are subscribed even if you unchecked the “send me updates and offers” box earlier in the process.
If you look closely, there’s a link I missed during my first examination. It’s highlighted here:
This small bit of cop underneath the newsletter options says I can “opt out in your account,” but there’s no link to my account. At the very top it says “Step 1 of 2”. If I’m not finished creating my account, can I access it to unsubscribe? It’s not clear.
Next, there’s a “contact us” link. Here’s what you get when you click that:
This is a common dirty trick. Rather than sending a person where they want to be, you flood them with information. It’s much more helpful and kind to link to “My Account.” It’s here, but it’s buried in the middle of this page. It also hides under “Manage Your Subscription.” If you aren’t paying for a subscription, it’s easy to skip over this part.
Going back to the previous screen, a person can also click “View all newsletters.”
Are you ready? Like the other screens, I’ve highlighted the important part:
Click the + on the right to see the full image ➡️
All the way down at the bottom is a “Manage Newsletters” link. The New York Times does not want you to find this link. If they did, it would have been on the previous screen. Or at the top of this page.
This shows contempt for readers.
I want to give a sense of how big this page is. This one is smaller to fit on this page, and it’s still huge. So I got an idea.
The TimesMay 8, 2020 front page featured an astonishing graph showing the 20,500,000 jobs lost in April. It extended the full length of the printed page.Comparing print to pixels is apples to oranges, so I found the digital version of the story, complete with a digital version of the graph.
It’s equally impressive (I’ve cropped the full page at the bottom of the graph):
On my 27-inch monitor, I can’t see the -10 million marker on the graph without scrolling. On my iPhone XS Max’s mobile screen, I can get to the big red -20,500,000 without scrolling.
But let’s compare this very long graph to the newsletters page above. That “Manage subscriptions” link? It’s so far down on the page, you can fit three full unemployment graphs on the page before you get to the link.
Click to see the full side-by-side comparison
The New York Times newsletter page is three times worse than “off the charts” — and that’s just on desktop! On mobile, all those newsletters are in one column. So you have to scroll past 60 newsletter cards to find the small “Manage subscription” link at the very bottom.
It’s awful. No one is going to do that, and that’s the goal.
Click to see the full mobile page
This is on par with the Amazon dark pattern in the video. The New York Times is throwing roadblocks at people who would opt-out of a free newsletter.
Sure, lots of companies do this. But people expect a different standard from journalists. No one expects Facebook to watch their back. They do have some expectation that journalists are on their side.
Two of the journalism business’ worst failings have been piss-poor user experience and customer service. This bogus opt-out journey is an all-star example of both failings.
These dark patterns and dirty tricks hurt your institutional reputation. They will also harm your potential to attract subscribers. The short term numbers bump is not worth the long term challenges.
I have more coming about why 17 million subscribers isn’t all that useful to local publishers or small newsrooms. If you’d like to get the next post and other insights on this topic, please sign up below. You’ll be subscribing to Pick It Up, my newsletter on building loyal audiences:
The New York Times got a lot of buzz last week when it claimed a whopping 17 million subscribers to “The Morning.” The thing is? 17 million is a bullshit number, because the Times subscribes people to its flagship newsletter without permission.
Note: The press release mentions that “Morning Briefing” is rebranded as “The Morning.” Below, I use “The Morning” unless it refers to a screenshot or copy that says otherwise.
Don’t believe every press release
For starters, let’s note that this number originated in a Times press release. From Facebook’s fraudulent video metrics to every word from the Bullshitter-in-Chief occupying the White House, any PR or marketing claim is automatically questionable.
And why is this particular marketing claim questionable?
TheSkimm: 3.5M to 9M subscribers from reports in 2016 and 2018.
Morning Brew: 2M subscribers
Axios: 1.5M across all newsletter
At first blush, it’s certainly possible the vaunted New York Times has a newsletter several factors larger than these companies. And besides, all three are much younger entrants to the newsletter landscape. But –
Without trying real hard, I came across some other figures that made me question the Times claim of 17 million subscribers to a single newsletter. Those figures were from…the New York Times.
In July 2018, the very similarly-named “U.S. Morning Briefing” had 1.6M subscribers. That’s a big audience! But it’s a long way from 17M. In this behind the scenes look at newsletters, the Times says its 55 newsletters total 14M subscribers. Again, that doesn’t seem unreasonable.
A few months later in November 2018, “Morning Briefing” launched a redesign. It had 1.7M subscribers. The Times also added in a claim that “hundreds of thousands more read it on our website and apps.” That’s marketing fluff.
Getting to 17M from 1.6M in under two years is a big leap. Thankfully, Mark did the math for me: “Going from 1.6 million to 17 million in 21 months averages out to a 12% monthly growth rate, akin to adding something like 2 million subscribers per month currently.”
I appreciate Mark’s research, analysis and his math. But I was still feeling pretty skeptical about this whole thing. And by now, I’d heard that the uptick in subscriptions was tied to the free coronavirus coverage. So I dug deeper.
And when I dug deeper, I saw what was really going on. Dark patterns. Dishonest practices. Spam.
Here’s what I mean:
The New York Times’ deceptive newsletter subscription process, step-by-step
Asking for an email address to access content is a reasonable request. Plenty of publishers incorporate registration walls into their business strategy. It’s not surprising The New York Times coronavirus page blocks access to the content until you create an account.
Note: I only ran through this with an email account. I did not use the “Continue with Google”, “Continue with Facebook” or Continue with Apple” options.
A person adds their email, clicks “Continue” to get past this particular wall.
On the next screen, you choose a password. There is also a box under the password field. It’s checked by default, and it says, “You agree to receive updates and offers from The Times. You may opt out anytime.” Having an opt-in checked by default is a dark pattern. It’s designed to trick people, which makes it a bad practice, but let’s talk about that in a minute. What’s happens here is even worse.
Having done that, a person clicks “Create Account” to move on.
The next screen is a subscription offer. Let’s click “Continue without subscribing” for now.
Here’s the first big problem. I didn’t even notice this at first.
We’ve all been through this type of page before. It’s a way to give people the option to grab some other newsletters as part of the registration process. I have no issue with asking for sign-ups.
The problem is the statement at the top: “Your new account comes with the Morning Briefing newsletter.”
I didn’t opt-in for that. In fact, I specifically unchecked the box that says, “You agree to receive updates and offers from The Times.” I’ve already chosen not to receive updates. There is no way to unselect “Morning Briefing.”
This is spam. The New York Times is signing me up for newsletters I’ve already said I don’t want. There is no way to opt-out.
Let’s say, like me, you missed this the first time around. Now you are continuing through this sign-up process, completely unaware that you are about to land on a mailing list that will invade your inbox every day, even when you click “Maybe later” at the bottom.
I get one more screen suggesting that I download the New York Times app, by sharing my phone number. Clicking “No, thanks. Take me back to reading” sends me back to the page where we started. I think I’m past the registration wall, thinking that I’m not going to get spammed.
Instead, within minutes of completing the above sequence, I got this:
For the cherry on top, check out this line in the footer:
“You received this email because you signed up for The Morning email from The New York Times.” [emphasis added]. I did no such thing. I had no choice in this subscription. This kind of manipulative sign-up approach is referred to as a dark pattern. Best part? The Times has reported on these types of deceptive practices.
Dark patterns trick people into signing up for things they may not want
In 2019, Princeton researchers studying dark patterns found 20+ websites using “confusing messages when encouraging users to sign up for emails and other services.” [The New York Times link]
One typical dark pattern is “misdirection,” defined as “prominent marketing come-ons may distract users from seeing check boxes that by default, say, sign them up for a newsletter or membership,” in this 2016 New York Times story.
Perhaps the Times should turn the reporters of the 2016 story loose on themselves.
Okay, so what about those folks who do want to receive “updates and offers” from the Times? They also get signed up for “The Morning.” Of course, the Times doesn’t exactly do its level best to present this information in clear fashion.
Here’s what the newsletter option page looks like after I created another account. This time I left the “updates and offers” box checked.
We have two opposing things going on here. First, there’s the same “Your new account comes with the Morning Briefing” copy. But look at the newsletter in the top right corner: “Morning Briefing.” It’s not selected.
So it seems that the Times forces readers to subscribe to “The Morning,” even when they don’t select any newsletters. And, if someone wants “Coronavirus Briefing” but not ”The Morning,” they can’t do that.The outcome here is the same as it is in the first example. The Times sends newly registered people “The Morning” without asking permission.
Further inspection revealed these dark patterns and spam are not only on coronavirus pages. When I registered a new account on this page from 2019, I again received “The Morning” after opting-out of email.
Hiding a daily newsletter behind “updates and offers” is another kind of bullshit, but it’s still bullshit. And here’s the thing: If you’re offering something worth having, you don’t need to hide it. At the very least, say “you agree to get The Morning” and let people decide. That’s not as good as an explicit opt-in, but it’s better than what’s there now.
This isn’t hard. Do right by your readers.
Digital journalism is an exciting place to try new things. But trying to short-cut the process by adopting the tech industry’s dirty tricks is not a path to success.
Let’s return to the fact that what started me down this particular rabbit hole was a press release; press releases are selling something. I wouldn’t take corporate marketing at face value from ExxonMobil or Volkswagen or Facebook. Why make an exception for The New York Times?
So what’s the Times selling?
The New York Times is selling itself as The Only News Brand That Matters (my deepest apologies to The Clash).
The Times press release describes “The Morning”’s 17 million subscribers as “one of the largest daily audiences of any kind in journalism, across television, radio, print and digital” [emphasis added].
The New York Times is easily the biggest success story for transitioning a print newspaper to digital products. It boasts 4 million digital-only news subscriptions, and 5 million digital subscribers when you include Crossword & Cooking products. “The Daily” is arguably the most popular news podcast. The Times claims 2 million daily downloads.
But this isn’t about newspapers. A daily audience of 17 million puts “The Morning” on par with the biggest media brands. April ratings showed coronavirus coverage pushing TV news viewership through the roof. “ABC World News Tonight with David Muir” averaged 12.36 million viewers a night through March & April. “NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt” averaged 10.66 million viewers. The most popular cable news show, “Special Report with Bret Baier” (Fox News), averaged 5.77 million viewers.
Of course, this isn’t apples-to-apples. Newsletters and television are very different. Putting aside that the Times is adding people without permission, 100% of subscribers aren’t opening this email every day. But this is marketing fluff. That’s why it’s in a press release.
This is a grab for a bigger slice of the news market. Striving for a bigger footprint in a down market is strategic. This approach clears a path for the Times to bring more people into their free products like “Morning Briefing” and “The Daily”, so they can work on converting them to paid subscribers
It’s what I would do. It’s what I counsel my clients that they should do, especially when you’re getting a surge of new readers. But I would never advise doing it like this.
Popularity is attractive to consumers. People love to jump on bandwagons. The most popular option often looks like the best option. When someone sees “17 million subscribers,” your brain assumes those subscribers love that product.
Local publishers should see this strategy as a warning. If the Times convinces enough people they are the default news subscription worth paying for, a lot of local newsrooms will be left scrambling over scraps.
But, that’s another post that I’m working on. If you’d like to get the next post and other insights on this topic, please sign up below. You’ll be subscribing to Pick It Up, my newsletter on building loyal audiences: