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Why The Guardian Should Nudge Its Online Readers To Increase Subscriptions

I'm a frequent Guardian reader and enjoy many sections including News, Sport, Science and Technology. Almost all of my reading is now done on my desktop PC, smartphone or Kindle and the Guardian is no exception – I haven't bought a paper copy in years and have a digital subscription on my smartphone instead. On a recent visit to their website I noticed a request for subscription which read:

Since you're here...

we've got a small favour to ask. More people are reading the Guardian than ever, but far fewer are paying for it. Advertising revenues across the media are falling fast. And unlike some other news organisations, we haven't put up a paywall – we want to keep our journalism open to all. So you can see why we need to ask for your help. The Guardian's independent, investigative journalism takes a lot of time, money and hard work to produce. But we do it because we believe our perspective matters – because it might well be your perspective, too.

If everyone who reads our reporting, who likes it, helps to support it, our future would be much more secure.

On the face of it this seems very reasonable. If the Guardian does not instigate a paywall then some online readers will need to make a payment for the newspaper to continue to function. Why not simply ask them to do this? My difficulty in reading this plea was that I'd read the excellent Nudge by Thaler and Sunstein a month ago, and it made me doubt how effective the advert would be.

Nudge describes different unconscious biases we have and how they impact our decision making. The authors offer policy makers simple, but effective, ways to nudge people into making the best decision in their long term interests e.g. increasing their pension saving rate. The examples given are for non-profit areas, but since that currently includes the Guardian, I hope the authors won't mind if I apply them here.

One of the biases which is relevant here is peer pressure, or the idea that we copy what out peers do when we aren't certain the appropriate action. Many sources of valuable online content have traditionally offered it freely, or in the hope that advertising revenue would make it profitable. So some people aren't sure whether they should pay for what they read on the web.

The difficulty with the Guardian statement and the peer pressure bias is that their request distils down to:

  • Most people don't pay us for online content
  • Many newspapers now restrict free content online
  • Most advertisers are reducing their payments
  • Please give us money because we write great stories

So peer pressure would make someone reluctant to pay. Why should they when almost no one else does? The Guardian is the odd one out for not creating a paywall. It's more effective to create the impression that social norms will encourage them to pay. Using that idea, the framing bias, the fact that people value money more today than in the future, and a little simple IP address tracking, the request could be rewritten as:

"We've noticed you've read a few articles on the Guardian website, and hope that you've enjoyed them. We believe that when people value what we write then they will want to subscribe to support us. It's similar to you expecting to be paid at the end of the month of hard work. Just £2 per week will help keep the Guardian going and will avoid you losing the hundreds of high quality articles our award-winning journalists write each month. We'll only take the first payment after three months to make it an easy start for you.”

Which request is better?

About The Author

Alasdair Graham is the founder of Apex Discovery and a coach who helps leaders and businesses grow. If you found this blog post useful then please share it.

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