I've been a little grouchy lately. Morning is not my friend on the best days, and the worst days are the ones in which the soothing warble of NPR’s Steve Inskeep on my clock radio has been replaced by the screechy aural assault of an NPR station manager exhorting me to pledge. The pledge drive concept appears to be modeled after a dog whistle – it emits a shrill blast that only certain species can hear, and it pulls us in not because we like it but because we desperately need it to friggin’ stop.
In the final days of the pledge drive, the reporters and station managers start getting punchy from endless hours of pimping tote bags for cash, and their rationales for why you should pledge come unhinged: “You wouldn’t walk into a book store and steal books, then expect the other customers to pick up the tab for your stolen books, would you? Well, that’s what you’re doing when you don’t help pay for all the great content on NPR.”
I admit to getting perverse enjoyment from listening to these loopy, caffeine-jag analogies, because they’re actually probing some hard truths about how we get people to pay for things they might otherwise get for free. The subject is of great interest to me because it’s one of many areas of human behavior that can be illuminated by game theory, which concerns itself with the incentives and disincentives that drive cooperation.
From a game theory perspective, you’d be hard-pressed to devise a worse system of incentives than the NPR pledge drive. Its fatal flaw is that it rewards contributors and non-contributors equally – with free content – and punishes them both equally with jarringly interrupted programming. In game theory, this is known as the volunteer’s dilemma: all NPR listeners have a collective interest in keeping NPR on the air over the long term, but in the short term, you can contribute nothing and enjoy exactly the same benefits – minus the tote bag – with very little risk that your personal failure to contribute will doom NPR. It’s a system that encourages freeloaders, and it gets them; only 1 in 10 NPR listeners is also a contributor.
I have a friend who runs fundraising for public broadcasting in central California, and on a recent visit, I subjected him to my pledge drive critique. He listened patiently, then said, “That’s a good point. So how would you fix it?”
Um, OK, you got me there. NPR is part of a broadcast medium, and all my ideas about incentives and access to content are based on digital media, which can be as narrowcast as you want it to be. And of course, as a taxpayer-funded entity, NPR is legally obliged to provide open access to contributors and non-contributors alike. So any system of incentives would have to start with that premise.
But in my fantasy pledge drive world, NPR could construct its incentives around whether I’d be subjected to their soul-deadening pledge breaks. They would give me a strong incentive to make my contribution at the start of the pledge drive, because immediately upon doing so I would receive a code I could punch into my clock radio or car radio to shut off the pledge drive pleadings and return me to my regularly scheduled programming. It sounds sci-fi in practice, but in principle, it’s not much different than me subscribing to Salon.com so I can shut off the ads.
The increase in consumption of “traditional” content via digital media offers the potential to solve classic problems like the volunteer’s dilemma: in digital media, we have the ability to construct finely tuned incentives and pricing tiers because content can be distributed one-to-one. In short, we can allow people to decide how much hassle they want to go through for access to content, and we can allow them to pay their way out of the hassle. This means we can reward subscribers without completely shutting out non-subscribers, who can accept the trade-off of inconvenience for access. It’s taken us a decade to figure out how to do this well, but successful models like the New York Times’ new paywall system reflect a growing understanding of the behavioral economics governing content consumption.
That’s one of many reasons I’m excited about the amount of content delivery converging around the mobile medium. Convenience is a big incentive in getting consumers to pay for content, and mobile is all about convenience (or at least it should be). NPR may not have figured out how to crack this code, but some of their shows have.
I’m a fan of This American Life, but I’m never near my radio during its scheduled airtimes. The TAL mobile app solves that for me, and it offers finely calibrated levels of convenience based on what I’m willing to pay. If I’m willing to pay nothing, I get an ad-supported app that streams the latest episode. If I fork over three bucks, I get access to the episode archive, but I can only have one episode downloaded at a time. If I want more, I can purchase individual episodes via Amazon through the app.
That’s a smart content strategy, and it deftly avoids the volunteer’s dilemma by giving me the short-term rewards of greater choice and convenience in exchange for my cooperation. (Although I should acknowledge that Ira Glass still works a pledge pitch into his intro, and the app is prone to crash. Nothing’s perfect.).
We may be a long way from NPR being able to unshackle its loyal contributors from the ear-manacles of the pledge drive, but I think we’re heading in the right direction in digital. In game theory terms, a state of equilibrium exists when content producers are getting paid (or funded), and consumers are getting the content they want at a reasonable price. An equilibrium is a stable marketplace: customers tend to stick around, until the content producer does something to upset the balance. Sound familiar, Netflix? Nope, I’m not even going to touch that can of worms yet – I’ll save it for next week, when the pledge drive is over and my mood improves.