The New York Times just announced its new paywall earlier today, but to my great surprise, I just received free access to NYTimes.com for the rest of 2011. Sponsored by Ford’s Lincoln brand, the New York Times is offering free accounts to “an exclusive group of frequent visitors to NYTimes.com.”

I don’t know why I was selected for this, but I’m still using the same account to access the NYTimes I opened in 1998 and I was a Times Select subscriber until the end of that failed paywall experiment. There are only a few mentions of this program on Twitter so far, so it looks like this is indeed a highly targeted campaign.

According to the ad, this program only gives the selected users free access to the website but not the tablet and smartphone apps. Given that the cheapest paid tier offers access to the smartphone app, though, I wouldn’t be surprised if smartphone access was part of this deal.

For a luxury brand like Lincoln, this is obviously a smart move, especially if this really turns out to be a relatively exclusive offer. While I doubt that many will thank Lincoln for this by buying one of their cars, it will undoubtedly keep the brand at the top of the mind of the New York Times’ most influential readers.

The fact that the New York Times is willing to make this offer, though, is curious. After all, the point of the new paywall is to “draw in subscription revenue from the most loyal readers while not driving away the casual visitors who make up the vast majority of the site’s traffic.” This deal seems to be geared towards exactly this group of loyal readers. Maybe the New York Times is simply hedging its bets here to ensure that its most loyal readers will still be around in case it has to tear the paywall down within the next year…

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