Required-user-registration debate continues

Written by Adrian Holovaty on July 16, 2004

The folks on Poynter's online-news listserv once again are debating the merits (and, more importantly, demerits) of required user registration on news sites -- a topic I'm particularly passionate about. Here's a light rewrite of something I contributed to the list Thursday, in response to a defendant of user registration who wrote: "[T]here will always be an audience segment that opposes giving information about itself to read content on the Web":

It's not just the privacy issues. It's also the lack of value. Registration accounts are complete throwaways -- as very obviously evidenced by BugMeNot. Everyone I've talked to (techies and non-techies alike) sees this type of registration as an extremely annoying barrier with no redeeming value. There's no personal tie to a typical news-site registration account, no incentive to give accurate information or even care about who has access to your account.

Contrast this with community sites such as Slashdot, on which things like reputation and personalized features give people a heckuva lot of incentive to keep their account information private. Use registration where it makes sense, where the alternative (registration-lacking) product would be inferior -- and very obviously inferior, in readers' eyes.

(No, saying "Registered users get more highly-targeted ads!" isn't enough. Neither is saying "The benefit of registration is that you get the content." That's nothing short of arrogant -- and readers can and will get their regurgitated AP stories elsewhere.)

Slashdot is actually a decent example of how a news site registration system should work: Anyone can read it for free, but readers register to post comments. (Yes, anonymous comments are allowed, but they're discouraged by the brilliant social engineering of the "Anonymous Coward" label.) And, since the site has been this way for years, the community is mature enough that people actively want to register, because incentives, such as notoriety, karma, etc., are attractive.

Comments

Posted by Gordon on July 16, 2004, at 5:29 a.m.:

What I don't understand, when I read people like yourself putting across such a valid argument, is how people argue against it.. no.. WHY people argue against it. Still c'est la vie I suppose.

I know one person who fills in these things using Disney characters - she says the emails you receive from them now and again lighten her day: Dear Mrs. Mouse....

Posted by Ben on July 16, 2004, at 10:56 a.m.:

It bothers me that, when you bring up Google in a conversation about user experience, people basically say "Well, this site isn't Google, so your idea about catering to the user's desires doesn't apply to me." Argh.

Also, does anyone else not have issues with developing fairly commonplace tools only for registered users? I realize there is a difference in time and resources available, but I'm of the school of thought that if the bar has been raised in the user's heads about what should be universally offered... for example, if everyone else is offering wireless alerts for free, it seems weak to ask people to register for yours, just because they're new to you. (I realize there are a lot of arguments for registering for special things like that, it's just my opinion...)

Can you tell I'm dealing with this registration topic at work?

Posted by Craig on July 16, 2004, at 12:46 p.m.:

As always, an excellent critique, Adrian; I'm glad you made it public here. Despite, my one minor quibble -- that the Slashdot-way of recognizing and promoting readers who are contributors would be a tough sell at most newspaper sites -- the core idea is right on the mark.

Perhaps, though, a corollary benefit of this is that registered users may have enough heft (for now) to be able to demand the features they really want to see.

And, Ben: I think Adrian and his co-workers are the only ones who've managed to avoid the whole registration thing.

Posted by Isaac on July 16, 2004, at 5:55 p.m.:

We haven't avoided the whole registration thing, we just have a boss who listens to his experts on this subject and has an enlightened viewpoint himself. I've been at the Journal-World longer than Adrian, Simon and Rob Curley, and before Rob took over there was serious discussion of "registered" and "unregistered" content options.

Rob put a stop to that, at least so far. Here's hoping that his bosses have given up on the subject.

Posted by Mike D. on July 16, 2004, at 10:53 p.m.:

I think there are perfectly valid arguments for and against, but what you say about value-added registration is definitely true: Offer (and require) it when it adds substantial value to the experience. We have a sidebar on ESPN.com which follows you through your entire user session. Without registration, it does nothing for you. With registration, it is a continuously updated dashboard of news and scores from your favorite teams. I personally find it a bit heavy in its current form but it certainly adds value and is arguably worth registering for.

Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it), a lot of the push towards mandatory registration on news sites is actually based on empirical data supporting the theory that readership won't really drop much with such systems in place. I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't seen it with my own eyes, but at least in our case, it's true. Users, although they may not want to, seem perfectly ok with giving at least some information in order to get to the content they are looking for. However, you did mention repurposed AP stories in your original post, and for non-original content such as this, then yeah, I'm sure certain people would go elsewhere for that.

Posted by bugmenot.com on July 17, 2004, at 8:09 a.m.:

They make registering sound so enticing though:

"By becoming a registered user and an f2 Network member, you agree to receive emails on occasion from f2 Network or Fairfax regarding products and services that we believe may interest you."

http://smh.com.au/registration/smh_rego_faq.html

Posted by Rob Pongsajapan on July 19, 2004, at 5:29 a.m.:

"There's no personal tie to a typical news-site registration account, no incentive to give accurate information or even care about who has access to your account."

Let's say you bite the bullet and register for an account at NYTimes.com. Besides the initial registration process and any verification requests, when do you even think about your registration? More importantly, do you view your account at NYTimes.com as anything other than a minor nuisance?

Users have come to expect value -- as defined by the user, not the online service -- in return for their personal information. Do users view targeted ads as a reasonable incentive for providing personal details? I'm guessing most of them don't.

The idea of providing real value to the user in exchange for registration speaks to a closer, more genuine relationship between the service and the user. Look at amazon.com's wishlist feature, for instance. This is something that obviously requires registration and detailed information from the user; however, people tout their wishlist as a source of pride.

Information by itself is a commodity; however, better ways to access and use that information is also extremely valuable on the Web. This will become increasingly true as the noise-to-signal ratio of information on the Web increases over time. Providing better ideas, tools and methods to sift through all the available information may just be the trigger that gets people to register on a site. At the very least, it will likely provide a competitive advantage.

Posted by codeman38 on July 20, 2004, at 12:35 a.m.:

The worst registrations are the ones that don't just require an e-mail address and basic demographics, but force you to give your street address and phone number to the lowest bidder. Honestly, is there any reason I need to divulge those details just to be able to read a news article?

Posted by John S. Rhodes on July 21, 2004, at 10:23 a.m.:

In my experience, marketing folks ask for registration information, thinking that they will be able to use the data. However, they really can't use the data effectively. Most marketing folks haven't figured out what the data means, how users think about it, how it is valuable, and so forth. It is something they actually don't understand. Registration data is like a new element on the Periodic Table of Marketing, and it just doesn't mean anything to them yet. Furthermore, very few marketing departments even have the time to use the data. The reality is that the data is of very low value. Most marketing folks think that the users listed in an opt-in list from a 3rd party has more value than the folks that are registered for their own site. Talk to some folks in *marketing* about this and you'll see what I mean. Really, it is scary. The bigger the company, the worse this attitude gets.

Posted by Lachlan Hardy on July 22, 2004, at 3:06 a.m.:

I refuse to subscribe. If I hit a registration page such as SMH or NYTimes, I just leave. Although I consider the latter to be a worse example, at least I can get to the SMH content after some brief irritation. I have no idea why I would want to subscribe to the NYTimes when I have never seen one of their pages...

Then again, I don't even accept cookies from sites until I'm an established regular, and if that destroys a portion of site functionality, I just don't use the site. So much for my Gmail account - even after I'd allowed cookies

The reason I think I'm like this, and many others I would think, is we're too busy. I don't have time to faff around with registrations just to see details of some news article that I'll catch on the TV tonight or the radio in the car. There are so many sources of information available to Internet users that any site cannot afford to miss their first opportunity. If you don't give me what I want as soon as I get there, I'm gone and I'm not coming back. That simple

Posted by john on August 19, 2004, at 12:16 a.m.:

Adrian,

Got a question for you here:

http://www.inluminent.com/weblog/archives/2004/08/18/whered_bugmenotcom_go/

?

Posted by Tom Levine on December 12, 2004, at 12:18 a.m.:

I totally agree. I don't think registration provides much marketing value anyway. If you require someone to register in order to receive access to your site, you are already de-valuing the site itself. Most people aren't stupid enough to NOT realize that the registration information is going to be used for an Opt-In email marketing campaign of some sort. So, your site visitor gives you the nobody@yahoo.com email address, and walks in the door, completely distrusting of anything you might have to offer. And why should he trust you? You just snagged some personal information, and provided nothing in return. For me, there's just too many other opportunities to obtain my information completely unrestricted, without cost and without disclosure.

Comments have been turned off for this page.