A complete guide to hostage negotiations in modern electronic publishing
It wasn’t long ago that you could travel freely across the internet, your caravan of goods and passengers never once falling into an ambush. But those were more civilized times.
These days, travelers in cyberspace run into ambushes all the time.
Bless their souls— this post isn’t about them. No, this post is about how to conduct one of those ambushes.
Holding the user’s attention hostage
In the olden days, you’d only have a few sentences to goad your reader into reading the whole article. We called it a lede. It’s still true, but these days you can turn a successful lede into an even more successful hostage negotation.
Keep an eye on how long your user has been on the page. Then spring your modal on them. The time and investment they sunk into the page— that’s yours now. If they leave now, that seed of a story will scratch at the back of their head forever.
Alternatively, you could watch how far they scroll down. Boom! Goes the landmine. This is great because it inherently punishes the user for doing something. That makes them blame themselves, not you.
The journalistic “protection” racket
Get your user into a precarious modal-over-content situation and gently remind them of everything you’ve done for them.
The world’s a dangerous world, after all, and they need you to protect them. Remind your user that they’re not just personally wronging you with their hit-and-run browsing, but all of journalism.
If your story is about a bad group of people (what story isn’t, really?) perhaps suggest to your user that if they don’t pay, they’re part of the bad group of people, or at the very least providing material support to them.
The first-hit-free strategy
Your users only get so many articles every month. After that, they have to pay up.
The most important message here: We’re watching you.
Let your user know that you know. That way you know that they know you know. How else are you supposed to conduct business?
Consider your article allowance carefully. It’s how much you think of your reader. Make sure the number isn’t too high or they may become entitled looky-loos, sharing your venerable journalistic vanlife recipes with their looky-loo friends.
Blurring the good stuff
Blur the heck out of everything they could want to see. Bonus points if combined with a delay.
A blur says to your user (victim?): “Ha ha ha! We have that thing you want.”
Remember that blurring turns everything into a commodity. If your site has pictures of people, and information, then you can use any old placeholder image or any old information to suggest you have the content the user is searching for. The user may be angry upon seeing the information isn’t actually behind the blur— but it’s fine, they can call and cancel their recurring membership before the end of their billing period. On any business day that’s not a Romanian holiday.
Holding your user’s time hostage
Chop your content up into long sections. Put up a paywall in the second section, or, if you’re especially brazen, the third section.
Make sure not to warn your user at the beginning of the first section. Then they might not read!
Remember that plenty of your users will foolishly link the article to their friend while reading the first or second section, drawing more of their friends into your trap.
This is the long-con version of holding your user’s attention hostage. Higher stakes, higher rewards. Remember that most long cons require more of your time. Not this one!
The “More-at-11” strategy
A time-honored TV news classic in the 80s and 90s, the “More-at-11” strategy consists of a shocking revelation that’s lacking crucial details, followed by a vague promise of delivering the details.
On TV, the format was something like, “This soda has just been found to cause cavities 75% more often than other sodas. More at 11.”
Of course, when the viewer sees the teaser, they’re sipping on their 7:30pm Coca-Cola, wondering if it’s the one.
On the web, publishers are limited only by their imaginations. Shocking headlines viscerally panic your user into paying for content. Remember to soothe them after eliciting this state. You’re their source of soothing now too.
The ones who didn’t pay can worry on some other site.
Holding the author hostage
You’ve perhaps lucked into the secret that you don’t need to pay writers at all.
They’ll write things on your platform all on their own.
All of that stuff they write? That’s yours now.
As a famous military commander once said, “I am altering the deal; pray I don’t alter it further.”
Some of these writers will develop readerships. That’s where you put your paywall, right in that budding relationship. Say something flattering while you cover their work up with your signup form.
“Get more of [author name]” is great, as it subtly reminds the writer that they too are a commodity.
The exploding offer
A reader has invested time and attention in to your site. You’ve turned it into a proper hostage situation.
Now’s the time to sell sell sell.
Remember that the state of curiosity (and/or desperation) you’ve elicited in your user has infinite upside. Part of this upside is that it’s easier to sell to them in this moment.
Ambitious publishers will put their pricing tables right there on the nag page. Truly ambitious publishers will include an exploding discount. The only power your user has here is to click away— do everything you can to diminish that. Will they click out of the tab when it means leaving money on the table?
A bright future
The empire that once was publishing is now dead. Nobody is watching the roads! The era of the digital highwayman is in full swing. Tracking tools mean that things only get better from here on out. Crypto makes nearly anything possible. One day publishers may make content experiences so truly miserable that readers can pay directly just to not be exposed to it. Imagine paying just a fraction of a bitcoin to turn an ad with screaming, colorful characters into one with an adult explaining things. Or signing an ethereum contract to get rid of all the “likes” and “ums” in a thinkpiece. This will be the real new information age.