The New York Times has built in one more loophole to its online pay-meter scheme that it did not mention yesterday: Interstitial ads from Lincoln on The Times' website are offering some readers "Free, Unlimited Access to NYTimes.com" for the rest of the year.
The value of that offer is close to $150. There's no catch, either -- you just have to be selected.
The offer will be made to about 200,000 of the Times's heaviest online readers who aren't home delivery subscribers, according to Lincoln, which expects about 100,000 people will actually activate it.
"We've been spending a lot of time with our media partners looking for ideas," said Connie Fontaine, manager of U.S. Lincoln marketing communications. "Our brand is one that has a lot of great news and a lot to say but isn't always heard. The Times did bring us this idea and we thought it was really relevant to the brand for a lot of reasons. The type of reader we'll be able to engage through this program is a thought leader."
The offer is part of a larger program under which Lincoln is also sponsoring parts of the Times archives around technology and design topics.
"Beginning March 28, The New York Times will charge for unlimited access to its Web site," the ad says. "Experience all that NYTimes.com has to offer you for the rest of 2011 at no charge, courtesy of Lincoln. This extraordinary invitation is being extended to an exclusive group of frequent visitors to NYTimes.com."
It also gets you free access to Times smartphone apps, which are going under the pay scheme in 10 days as well.
One of the big questions about the Times' plan to charge for electronic access, a bid to make readers pay online just like they do in print, has been how much free reading to allow. More free reading means more readers, who in turn can be used to attract advertising.
Under the plan The Times first described on Thursday, visitors to The Times online who aren't home delivery subscribers will have access to 20 free articles a month. After that the Times will offer them a choice, the cheapest of which is $15 for four weeks of access to the site and a smartphone app. After that readers could pay $20 per for unfettered online access and its iPad app or $35 to cover all of the above. Home delivery subscribers get all access at no extra charge, not including the Times on the Kindle and Nook.
Readers who come to Times articles through links from search, blogs and social media will be able to read that content even if they've hit their max. There will be limits on reading Times content that way, however; visitors from Google will get hit a five-article daily limit.
The Times is obviously calculating that the Lincoln offer, although big enough to be desirable for Lincoln to buy, won't affect enough people to undermine its effort to capture new circulation revenue. "It really is a core group of loyal and highly engaged users," a Times spokeswoman said. "It represents a very small percentage of the top tier."
The Lincoln offer is being made to a "predetermined list of highly engaged readers," she said. "It's attractive to Lincoln because it gives them the ability to reach a group of readers who are highly active and engaged with the site."
The Times has not decided, however, whether it will make similar programs available to other marketers. "We will evaluate it and see how it worked and consider it, certainly," the spokeswoman said.
If you haven't seen the interstitial -- and think you might be a highly engaged Times reader -- you may want to try logging out of NYTimes.com and logging back in. It worked for us.