With ads like this, can Australia be convinced to pay for news online?

The biggest challenge for traditional newspapers is to migrate the behaviour of paying for news in print to doing so for access online.

With so much on the line, you’d think it would be worth ensuring publishers’ ads are effective, right?

Disappointing then, when I opened my Fairfax weekend paper and was greeted by its attempt to convince people like me to take up a subscription.

By ignoring the basics of behavioural influence, Fairfax Media botched a great opportunity to get people to subscribe. Here are the four things its marketers got wrong.

Fairfax digital subscriptions print ad


1. Sequence of prices

Moving from left to right across the page, the ad starts with the cheapest package of $15 per month, includes two $25 options in the middle, and finishes with the $44 package on the far right.

Behavioural science has demonstrated time after time that people are anchored to the first price they see and it is very difficult to shift them from that initial position. In retail the RRP acts as the pricing anchor against which any mark down seems a bargain.

When people read this ad they are first confronted with $15 (which by the way seems expensive compared with the $1 trial), only for options to get more and more expensive as they move across the page.

A better approach would have been to start with the most expensive package ($44) and then move down ($25, $25, $15).  Suddenly that $15 that seemed expensive compared with $1 seems entirely reasonable compared with $44.

2. $1 initial trial

In theory, setting a low trial offer has the advantage to the customer of getting used to the service without significant financial risk.

For the business it has the advantage of getting the customer’s credit card details enrolled and means the bulk of customers will be too lazy to cancel once they have switched over to the regular subscription rate.

However, $1 is such a low value amount that it creates two problems;

  1. People will not be bothered to go through the rigours of sign-up for such a low price – it’s simply too annoying to warrant something worth $1, and
  2. it creates a low value price anchor that distorts the value of upgrading. In other words, people have to be convinced that the subscription is worth at least 15 times the trial.


In my view the better options for trial are either free on condition of sign-up or $9.95 as an introductory offer to make it seem more worth doing.

3. Per-month subscriptions

Fairfax promoted their subscription options at the monthly rate, starting at $15 through to $44 per month. Mistake number three.

Assuming Fairfax are trying to convert occasional readers (rather than retain existing paper subscribers), then these people are used to two price points when it comes to news: $0 for online and $2 to $3 for every printed paper they buy. Just like the sequence of the packages anchors the price in the mind of the reader, so too have these values become important pricing anchors against which people will judge the relative value of subscription offers.

Unfortunately for Fairfax, when people view this ad they will likely be comparing $15 to $3 and, no surprise, that seems expensive.

But, I hear you say, it’s $15 for a month rather than a day. The problem here is that people tend to ignore the denominator when assessing value so they are unlikely to mentally calculate the equivalent daily cost. Denominator neglect is the same reason 30-year mortgages are so popular – people focus on the loan value not the period over which they’ll be in debt.

A much better approach would have been to promote subscriptions as 50 cents per day ($15 per month/per day) because it ties the value to the daily usage pattern and also brings the cost below the cost of a daily printed newspaper.  Even $44 at $1.44 a day seems more reasonable.

4. Presentation of packages

A fourth missed opportunity in this ad is how the packages themselves are presented.

In a box on the left the two digital-only packages are listed ($15 and $25).  In a separate box to the right, two digital and paper packages ($25 and $44).

The key here is there are two packages for $25. The first, digital only, includes access to the website and the tablet app. The second, digital and print, includes the website, the tablet app as well as Saturday and Sunday newspapers delivered. Unless you are vehemently anti-paper, the second $25 option is obviously better value because you get full digital plus the weekend papers.

Purely through bad ad formatting Fairfax have botched their opportunity to secure more subscribers at a higher value.

At the moment, the $25 digital offer sits next to the $15 offer and frankly seems underwhelming. By bracketing these offers together people will compare the $15 to the $25 and likely go for the $15.

Instead imagine if the $25 digital and paper offer (best value) was positioned in a table alongside the other $25 offer.  Suddenly, instead of comparing $15 to $25 the choice has become one between which $25 is best.  By formatting the packages in a smarter way Fairfax would have increased their odds of not only securing a subscription, but one at $25 rather than $15.


Fairfax is not alone in making mistakes like this – most of its competitors are likewise botching the task of shifting consumer behaviour. I’ve called them out here because I am a loyal reader and I am simply disappointed that they are getting some behavioural basics so wrong when their future and the future of quality journalism depends on conversion. With the stakes so high amateurish attempts to convince us like this are simply poor business.


Bri Williams
BY Bri Williams ON 8 July 2013
Bri Williams, a specialist in buying behaviour, helps businesses increase sales and marketing conversion through behavioural science. Follow Bri @peoplepatterns or visit peoplepatterns.com.au
  • Leightonj


    Great article. Agree with you and would add three things:

    *Start prices high and sell all the value, then the lower priced options don’t look to be very valuable at all.
    *I think that they would have better spent their money on rebating the first month’s price discount as a loyalty bonus further down the track
    * Too many choices, I think I would have alternated the offers in different weeks, or split them into different sections of the paper.

    Testing various strategies for a few weeks would I think have delivered a better outcome than a big ‘launch’.

  • Mark@MakeThemClick

    I think newspapers which think that they can charge for online subscriptions are living in the last millennium. They are completely missing the reality. The consumer has moved on, especially the online savvy consumer. With so many far better and free news sources available why would anyone bother to pay for news?

  • ihgray

    I was also wondering, how do the main contributing advertisers feel about the pay wall system? If I was a major advertiser who spends buckets of cash to Fairfax etc, how would you feel if suddenly your editorial ie Travel, Auto test drives, Movie and album reviews, concert & sporting build ups aimed at bringing in bums on seats, suddenly sits behind a PAYWALL barrier? How does this work without them going mental?