Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Charging for a Free Lunch

No one likes to pay for something that used to be free. And no company likes to tell its customers they have to start paying for a service they got for nothing. Nevertheless, it happens all the time and, in many cases, it causes hard feeling and ill-will between customer and company.

The folks at Pandora, the online streaming music service that allows you to create your own radio “channels,” faced the same problem. Due to royalty issues with its providers, Pandora had to begin charging for some of their content. As a devotee of the service, I was leery about what was coming. After all, Jott used to be free, and after they hooked me, they cut off the free service.

Here’s an excerpt from the email I got from Tim Westergren, the founder of Pandora.

First, I want to let you know that we’ve reached a resolution to the calamitous Internet radio royalty ruling of 2007. After more than two precarious years, we are finally on safe ground with a long-term agreement for survivable royalty rates – thanks to the extraordinary efforts of our listeners who voiced an absolute avalanche of support for us on Capitol Hill. We are deeply thankful.

While we did the best we could to lower the rates, we are going to have to make an adjustment that will affect about 10% of our users who are our heaviest listeners. Specifically, we are going to begin limiting listening to 40 hours per month on the web. Because we have to pay royalty fees per song and per listener, it makes very heavy listeners hard to support on advertising alone. Most listeners will never hit this cap, but it seems that you might.

Ok, so far so good, although I was expecting the big “but” that was going to nail me with big fees. This is what came next:

We hate the idea of capping anyone's usage, so we've
been working to devise an alternative for listeners like you. We've come up with two solutions and we hope that one of them will work for you:

Your first option is to continue listening just as you have been and, if and when you reach the 40 hour limit in a given month, to pay just $0.99 for unlimited listening for the rest of that month. This isn't a subscription. You can pay by credit card and your card will be charged for just that one month. You'll be able to keep listening as much as you'd like for the remainder of the month. We hope this is
relatively painless and affordable - the same price as a single song download.

Your second option is to upgrade to our premium version called Pandora One. Pandora One costs $36 per year. In addition to unlimited monthly listening and no advertising, Pandora One offers very high quality 192 Kbps streams, an
elegant desktop application that eliminates the need for a browser, personalized skins for the Pandora player, and a number of other features: http://www.pandora.com/pandora_one.

Tim goes on to add that a third option is to stop listening once you get to the 40 hour cap for that month. He closed the email by saying they’ve created a counter that will let you see where you are to date toward your 40 hour cap and by thanking me once again for using the Pandora service.

What’s the catch? There is none. Pandora has had to change their business model and did so in a way that almost makes you feel good about paying a small fee to continue being a customer. What did they do right and what can marketers learn from this? I see three things:

  1. Lay out the issue clearly – Tim spoke of the royalty settlement and its impact on his business. No fluff, just straightforward talk.

  2. Give the customer options – I now have three choices (four if you count stopping listening altogether). One of these three will surely work for me.

  3. Give the customer time to react – I got Tim’s email in early July. His changes won’t be effective until August, giving me plenty of time to consider my options (not that this is a life-changing decision, but I do like my Bob Seeger and James Brown channels).

Product management’s role is to set pricing strategy. Part of that strategy includes how / when you change price. Pandora’s decision on how they increased their price says a lot about their brand and the type of company they want to be.

P.S. I responded to Tim’s email and got a prompt (less than 24 hour) response from Jasmyn, a “listener advocate” thanking me for my comments and my support of Pandora. Well done!

Friday, July 17, 2009

Making a Difference

Back from a mid-summer’s blogging break…..

One of the reasons I love what I do is that I get to work with passionate visionaries. And sometimes, these visionaries have an idea that could change the world, or at least a piece of it. I’m currently helping a start up that is trying to change the world for all the right reasons. InvoTek, a firm based in the small northwestern Arkansas town of Alma, makes assistive technology devices that help people with high spinal cord injuries use a computer. Their flagship product, AccuPoint, uses sophisticated laser technology to enable quadriplegics to operate a computer using head movements. This technology has changed the world of a small group of users who can now download pictures of their grand kids, send emails to friends, and organize a reunion of Navy buddies. For more on InvoTek, see the Fort Smith, AR City Wire article.

Here is a for-profit company with a non-profit’s vision. It shows in their products, their commitment to their customers, and even in their tag line: Compassion Driven Innovations. They understand that a solid business strategy starts with changing someone’s world.

It’s like a mentor once asked me, “Do you want to make a dollar, or do you want to make a difference?”