Media companies can get reader data without “speed bumps” that frustrate users

By Jodie Hopperton


Los Angeles, California, United States


Hi there. Since Google’s third-party cookie announcement, we recognise as an industry that we need to find ways to authenticate users. And this needs to fit seamlessly into our customers experience without causing too much of what my colleague Ariane Bernard calls a speed bump.

Following a meeting with the INMA Product Advisory Council on this subject, I took some questions to Ariane (who runs the INMA Smart Data Initiative) and Greg Piechota (who runs the Readers First Initiative) and learnt a lot from their experiences. In this newsletter, I want to share some of the discussion and best practices from all these smart minds I’ve been interrogating on this subject. 

Hope it’s helpful — Jodie.

Authenticating and profiling users without slowing them down 

Since the cookie announcement, we recognise the need to find ways to authenticate users and gather first-party data. I’m sure this isn’t news to you. But I wonder whether it’s a priority? Anecdotally, I hear a lot about the work being done but that it’s not yet top of mind for many CEOs. That time is coming soon. 

Without third-party cookies, we need to find ways to authenticate users and start building profiles. This is needed for a whole variety of reasons, not least that we can’t build effective products if we don’t know who our users are. 

Readers do not like road blocks to getting to content, yet media companies need to gather as much information from them as possible. The answer may be progressive profiling.
Readers do not like road blocks to getting to content, yet media companies need to gather as much information from them as possible. The answer may be progressive profiling.

Sign-up/sign-on needs to be as simple as possible to increase the number of people moving through the funnel and not interrupt their content experience too much, yet we want to gather as much data as possible. These two have the potential to conflict. How do we handle that within product? Data is generally gathered in other ways and at other times to build profiles — called “progressive profiling.”

My colleague Ariane Bernard pointed out that most registration happens when the user is trying to do something else such as read an article or sign up for a newsletter. If this “speed bump” is more than a few clicks, we risk getting abandonment or perhaps worse, “dirty data.”

To give you some idea of the scope of this, my colleague Greg Piechota told me: “Sign-up/check-out abandonment is a big problem across e-commerce, but news publishers seriously underperform. In the INMA benchmarking study, we saw publishers losing on average more than 90% users during the subscription check-out, while a broader e-commerce industry is losing only about 70%.” 


Granted, this is for subscribing — not just registering — but that is a staggering number. It goes to show that there needs to be some kind of value exchange to get people to sign up: a newsletter, access to more content, at minimum. The good news is that once people are registered, there is a positive correlation to subscribing.

And what about the dangers of this dirty data (which I think is my new favourite phrase)?  

This happens when people pick an answer that isn’t true. This is usually the easiest answer rather than the real answer: the top country in the list, the first allowable birthday. In the U.S., the two most popular zip codes are 90201 and 10001 — the former from a popular 1990’s  TV show, the latter from ease. If we rush people through or make them do something that is counterintuitive to what they want to do, we’re at risk of getting data that not only isn’t usable but can lead to more work, or worse, bad decisions. 

So if we can’t get information up front, how do we collect more data? 

This is where progressive profiling comes in (unless you are in a country such as Poland that has exceptionally strict regulations around this). 

One company I spoke to used micros surveys. Leading with a quick/fun polling question, they found many people were then happy to answer subsequent profiling questions. This needs to be smart to know what has been gathered already. They use standard ad units, which means it’s fairly simple to implement without having to add additional units/pop-ups to the page. And the ad teams offer up the space as it’s mostly them that benefits from the resulting revenues.

Other organisations build this into tools and utilities on the page: local school listing, event trackers, or I even heard about an astral event that asked people for their zip code, which then gave them specific data about what they would see when. 

Ariane points to incentivising profile completion because “only good data will actually improve revenue — not ... bad, empty data.”

Best practices for building a registration/sign-on process

More and more publishers see the need to register users and start building profiles for both subscription and advertising gains, not to mention the potential of personalisation. So what are some of the fundamentals we should be thinking about? Greg Piechota and Ariane Bernard (who has looked at this from multiple perspectives, including The New York Times) each gave me some pointers.

Media companies shouldn't create more than one to two clicks for a reader to become a registered user.
Media companies shouldn't create more than one to two clicks for a reader to become a registered user.

Here’s my TL;DR:

  • 1-2 clicks to create an account.

  • 2-5 sign-in options, including a single sign on (SSO) such as Google, Facebook, or Apple.

  • Be wary of having e-mail as a unique identifier.

  • Try magic linking (see below for more details).

  • Don’t build your own authenticator.

The best-in-class services use just one to two clicks to create an account and ask for a single data point. 

What should that data point be? Likely an e-mail or mobile phone number. Yes but e-mails can be transient: You are likely reading this newsletter through a company membership to INMA, so what happens if you leave? Plus people often have multiple e-mail addresses so you may refer to the same person thinking they are different. The solution is forming a Unique User ID (UUID), which acts as a three-way link up. 

As most of you will know, the Big Tech platforms offer single sign on (SSO) services. I am sure we have all signed in with Google, Facebook, Amazon, or Apple at some point in time. I use these almost every day. It cuts down on the number of passwords to remember and I love the ability to hide my e-mail address through Apple. This is with my user hat on. From a publishing point of view, they can create further reliance. And while the “hidden e-mail” from Apple means that we can still communicate with readers, they are fairly anonymous. And we may double count them as effectively we could have double counting for the same people.  

That’s a lot of options. And we know that limiting choice is usually a good thing to avoid analysis paralysis. Is there a magic number of options? At least two and less than five. Which options to choose will be market and platform dependent. Ariane believes including at least one SSO is a must. Greg adds that “some markets have more Apple users than Android others, and if a publisher gets most traffic in an app, it might be required to use Sign in with Apple (mandatory if you use any other SSO).  

According to this site, for example, Sign in with Google is the market leader, but interestingly more Web sites use Sign in with Amazon today than Sign in with Apple.

INMA Researcher-in-Residence Greg Piechota shares a case study on Medium's use of magic linking.
INMA Researcher-in-Residence Greg Piechota shares a case study on Medium's use of magic linking.

How about magic linking (when a user is e-mailed a “magic link” that logs them on)? Yes is the short answer. It’s widely used in tech. is a great example. And The New York Times found that allowing users to login via clicking a link in an e-mail (“magic linking”) had a 2% lift in successful logins. Ariane also pointed to the fact that it can help keep your data up to date: You may have a far fresher database of e-mails since every log-in requires that you have current contact info.

A piece of product advice to leave you with. Ariane tells me: “Do NOT build your authenticator. Just dont.” (She actually wrote this three times within four sentences, to give you an idea of how strongly she feels about this. And I trust her wholeheartedly). If you need an alternative, she recommends Firebase, which has the added benefit of being free.

Date for the diary: Wednesday, February 9

Tomorrow we have a Webinar discussing “news you can use” and the topic of tools and utilities for news. I’ve heard a lot of news organisations are starting to look at more “lean in” experiences where people add information/data to get something in return. These are work to create and maintain, but they have the potential to be used to get more data as better input gives readers better output. And this can be habit forming, moving us to that important goal post of engagement. 

This is going to be a true discussion so I hope you will join us and share your thoughts and experiences. Sign up here.

Tweet of the week

I love this no nonsense tweet from @UpsanaGautam. There are so many things to distract us from stuff that actually needs to get done that scheduling blocks of time for “heads down work” is imperative. I’d expand this further: A managing editor friend of mine schedules time each day called “breathe and stop.” It gives her time to think and reflect, which makes her a better manager. We should all be doing this.

About this newsletter 

Today’s newsletter is written by Jodie Hopperton, based in Los Angeles and lead for the INMA Product Initiative. Jodie will share research, case studies, and thought leadership on the topic of global news media product.

This newsletter is a public face of the Product Initiative by INMA, outlined here. E-mail Jodie at with thoughts, suggestions, and questions. Sign up to our Slack channel.

About Jodie Hopperton

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