3 media companies share best practices for registering and logging in users

By Shelley Seale


Texas, USA


As news sites across the world are enjoying surges in demand, an increasing number of publishers are asking readers to register and log in. There are many benefits, as well as risks.

On Thursday, at the INMA Readers First Initiative’s regular meet-up, Researcher-In-Residence Grzegorz (Greg) Piechota and guest presenters discussed the benefits, costs, and risks of registering and logging in online users based on experiences of national log-in alliances and of individual publishers.

Piechota opened the meet-up by outlining the benefits of registration and log-in to publishers:

  • Analytics: Allows tracking behaviours across devices and browsers. This is the first step to enrich profiles with implicit and explicit data.
  • Product: Unlocks experiences and features that require readers to be logged in, reduces friction in purchases, and other sign-up flows.
  • Marketing: Allows the nurturing of prospects and existing customers via e-mail, which allows for matching users in advertising networks as well.
  • Advertising: Allows publishers to segment and target across their platforms and unlocks the potential for new advertising and marketing products.
  • Legal: Helps store user permissions required by law, and helps close loopholes around metered paywalls.
A low adoption rate due to stop rate is a big challenge with user registration.
A low adoption rate due to stop rate is a big challenge with user registration.

“There are good reasons for publishers to do it, but there are also some challenges,” Piechota said. One of the biggest is the low adoption due to low stop rates. “The registration rate will very much depend on the exposure rate.”

He shared benchmark data from Piano, based on results from about 300 publishers. This gives median rates for different types of visitors to a news publisher Web site:

  • Fly-by: 66.7%
  • Active users: 4.2%
  • Exposed to offers: 13.4%
  • Registered: 3.0%
  • Logged in: 0.57%

“But we are going to talk today with publishers who do better than the median,” Piechota said. “And we are also going to talk about challenges.”

It’s not just about stopping people with a free registration offer, but also about the benefits offered to users to register. Looking at the top 50 news sites, Piechota listed the top benefits that users registered for:

  • Sign up for a newsletter: 100%.
  • Comment on articles: 49%.
  • Save articles to read later: 21%.
  • Access to discounts and promotional offers: 16%.
  • Personalised content recommendations: 14%.
  • Read more articles for free: 12%.

Other benefits that fewer than 10% of users register for include getting news alerts, access to the mobile app, access to events or classes, podcasts, and following writers or topics.

The registration flow is another major challenge. Piechota shared a slide showing the percentage of various data points collected by the top 50 subscription sites.

Data collected from the top 50 news publishers shows the various data points collected from readers.
Data collected from the top 50 news publishers shows the various data points collected from readers.

“People are asking for a lot of things. Der Spiegel in Germany is asking for 18 different data points just to register. That is a lot.”

So what are the best practices? The New York Times offers a good case study with a very simplified flow that asks just for an e-mail and consent. “It’s an interesting tactic to delay further action,” Piechota said. “We want to ask them more questions about themselves, but maybe we can delay those actions.”

Users could be asked for more personal information to access additional features, such as managing their account or newsletter subscriptions.

Case study: Winnipeg Free Press, Canada

Christian Panson, vice president/digital and technology, presented what the Winnipeg Free Press is doing with its user registration wall, as well as also how the company reduces friction in the process.

“We implemented a paywall in 2015,” Panson said. That was preceded with a registration gate in late 2014. We really needed to de-anonymise our users, and on the subject of friction, we wanted to separate of registration from the friction of payment.”

The Free Press implemented a two-article metered paywall, which was gradually tightened. The impact to visitors was negligible, and the impact to pageviews was a decline of 3% (but possibly as high as 13%).

In fall 2015, Winnipeg Free Press implemented a paid requirement that offered a 30-day free trial. Some redesign and content enhancement went along with that.

“What we studied after we got 250,000 people through, and now we have 580-590,000 registered users, we were seeing very low conversion. We would see very low conversion of users who signed up for a trial.”

The team wanted to know why this was happening and where those conversions were coming from. Users came at a higher frequency from mobile than desktop. The hypothesis was that the registration paywall was too hard and people were turned off.

When the registration process is too onerous, users don't register.
When the registration process is too onerous, users don't register.

The existing registration process at the time had 11 steps. “This is a problem, I think,” Panson said. “One of our biggest failing was that, when a user verified their account, they got sent to our landing page, not even the article they were on before. We failed on the promise we were giving them right off the bat.”

They simplified the process and took it down to five steps, Panson said. “I think the value exchange for most readers that are coming to us is the story that they’re reading. That is what’s going to trigger them to convert.”

They got rid of extra dialogue and reduced the process as much as possible, and the user immediately continues reading the article they were on. The e-mail confirmation also includes a link to continue reading the article.

“We completely downplay accounts because we feel people are tired of accounts.”

The results enforced their reasoning with an increase of 633%. With the previous registration process, they were getting an average of 63 daily sign-ups. After the change to the new, simplified process, they got 462 daily sign-ups.

“This is like a six times increase,” Panson said. “If you look at it over time this is even greater. When we have a big, important story that creates a lot of interest, that creates way more registrations. We were very pleased. We’re looking at everything we do now to try and reduce friction.”

Case study: Media 24, South Africa

Charlene Beukes and TinaShe Makwande, general manager and publisher, respectively, shared their experience in Cape Town as the largest digital publisher in South Africa. The model is advertiser-revenue based and the users are largely from mobile.

Media 24 in South Africa uses registration to offer a better product to customers.
Media 24 in South Africa uses registration to offer a better product to customers.

“We try to understand our super users as much as we can,” Makwande said. “We decided to use registration in order to offer a better product to our readers.”

Media 24 launched the registration in conjunction with the launch of its new app (as an app-only registration) on February 5, 2020. They ask only for an e-mail address, which the reader gives in exchange for exclusive newsletters, added weather features, added traffic features, and the ability to save an article.

The tracking dashboard is vital. “It’s very important that we understand what our users are doing and why they are doing it.” Makwande shared data results from February 5 to April 29, during which time they received 513,952 registrations. That represents about half of the unique devices that downloaded the app.

About 96% of these registered users are logged in when they read on the app. The Media 24 team is interested in knowing why these users are logged in and what features they are using the most. Bookmarks are one of the top features, along with discover, weather, newsletters, and search queries.

One of the reasons this was so successful was the launch of the registration along with the app, Beukes said: “We spent a lot of time making sure that the value proposition was very clearly communicated in as few words as possible. We always drive that value set in combination with our high-quality journalism.”

One way they do this is to talk about their features together, rather than in isolation to each other. A friction-free experience is also key. At the launch, they tested requiring the users to tick a box saying they agreed to the terms and conditions. However, they found that half of the people trying to register were not successful. The stumbling block was the second screen and the checkbox.

They changed the screen, rather than asking for the action of checking the box, included wording that said by submitting, the user agreed to the terms and conditions.

“The effect was immediate,” Beukes said. “We went from anything between a 50% and a 55% success rate, immediately to a 70% success rate. Who would have thought a one little tickbox would make such a difference?”

The next step will be rolling out the registration process on desktop and mobile Web in the near future, in exchange for feature access across all platforms.

Case study: Diar, Norway

Diar is a log-in alliance between two publishers. Daniel Granlund Bredahl, director of insights, explained how their log-in process works.

An important background is that Norwegians hunger for anything newsworthy. Regional newspapers particularly have been successful at converting to digital registration and log-in.

“For local newspapers in our alliance, we see log-in rates between 75% and 85% on user session and impression levels,” Bredahl reported. “We have reached a level where we have 1.5 million registered users in a country where there’s 4.2 million people over the age of 15. When we looked at this from an advertising perspective. We needed competitive reach.”

The team defined five important areas to address:

  • Reach: Needed to offer competitive reach and frequency.
  • Media benefits: Trusted publications and relevant context on a national and local level.
  • Data quality: Geography, age, gender, and interest; first-party data from 1.7 million people.
  • Creatives: Creative formats such as video, with simplicity in upload and storage.
  • Effect: Both qualitative and quantitative.

“To get competitive reach, we needed to remove a lot of the barriers to log-in,” Bredahl said.

To complete the process, a user needed to provide their phone number and create a password. In Norway, a mobile number gives a variety of user data sets. This allows them to collect data on the different types of user audiences, including what they’re consuming.

Diar also prefers to collect user data based on mobile phone number rather than e-mail because it is unique and a person only has one — as opposed to e-mail addresses, of which a typical person has several. E-mail addresses also change, and it’s easy for people to forget what e-mail they used for subscriptions. A phone number in Norway is also registered to a person legally. For Diar, e-mail is only a communication tool.

“We’re primarily content based, in terms of what you do to log in, and that creates some dark spots.” Bredahl explained that, for instance, one person in a household might not want to read what another person in the household would.

“To purify data flow, we created a new option, a family subscription. This gives us more users, which captures a lot more data. But it also gives us pure data because you complete your own profile.” This personalises suggested content based on what each individual person has previously read.

“It’s very helpful to know 120 data points from a single user but still only demanding one from them,” Bredahl said. “Data quality is essential to be able to give the best offering to our readers because it allows us to model the users that don’t log in and present a more relevant offering to them.”

Diar looks at different data sets to build models and adapt its registration process.
Diar looks at different data sets to build models and adapt its registration process.

At the log-in data level, Diar saves everything to make sure every offer presented to a new user is relevant. This is done by building solid data at the deterministic level, then using that to build on the probalistic level and to build lookalike models.

The external part is how to attract new users. They are mainly recruited by content, with exclusive paid content and additional content.

“The second part of what we do is based on purchased content,” Bredahl said, using sports as an example. The company also plans to roll out new things soon, such as digital magazines.

About Shelley Seale

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