Choosing the Right Registration Model

By: Steve Outing

User registration is the trend for news Web sites large and small. While there are still pockets of resistance and some smaller shops may not see the financial benefit yet, the industry is moving toward registration with unified resolve.

As more sites turn on registration systems — requiring their users to submit some demographic information as “payment” for accessing free online content — there’s the need to figure out where best to put the registration wall.

Do you put it right up front, requiring registration before any content is served? Do you make it selective, requiring registration before looking at some content, but not other material or sections? Or do you take a kinder, gentler approach, asking for information from users but not demanding it?

Let’s take a look at the possibilities to see where your site should sit. There’s not one answer that fits all.

The Draconian Approach

I strongly believe it’s counterproductive in most cases to force users to register in order to see any content at all. If your intent as a site manager is to build a large audience, it’s not a great idea to put speed bumps in the way — because not all of your users are going to get past the bumps.

Here’s the worst possible strategy: Beyond the openly accessible home page and section fronts, any article or content brings up a user-registration screen that requires a first-time site visitor to register in order to see anything else.

Here’s the exception to that: If you have a site with a niche audience that is highly motivated to consume your content, and there aren’t a lot of competing sites offering the same or similar content. Then perhaps you can expect high acceptance of immediate forced user registration by your audience.

Otherwise, keep reading for the gentler approaches.

Just a Tad Gentler

A little less draconian is a variation of the Salon model, which uses lengthy article teases to get site visitors interested enough in reading more. Salon is a paid-subscription site, but it also offers free access to its articles if you’re willing to sit through a full-screen web advertisement in order to get a “day pass.” (Salon doesn’t require users to give it personal information in order to get that free access for a day.)

Tweak that just a little: Replace Salon’s full-screen ad with “register for our site by giving us some personal details.” Now you’ve got a registration scheme that works for some Web sites.

The key to the Salon strategy is that from its home page or section pages, you can click through to any article and see the illustration (if any) plus the first few paragraphs of text. To read more, you must buy a subscription or view an ad for the day pass. With the registration strategy, the site asks the online visitor to register in order to see the full story — and of course, from then on the site serves up full content.

This is a nice strategy for sites where everyone that pays an online visit is someone you want to have register with your site. After all, you’re requiring the one-time visitor (who might be coming to one of your articles because of a link found on Google News or another aggregator) to register as well as the local person who will use your site again and again.

If registering every person who ever visits your site isn’t important to your business goals, then read on.

Locking Down Some, But Not All

One of the more common approaches taken by the news industry right now is to require user registration only to see selected content. Some content is kept open, with no registration requirement. If a site visitor never strays beyond the confines of the open content, he/she is never asked to register.

An example of this comes from Morris Communications, which in the last three months has begun moving its network of newspaper sites to registration. Right now, only The Augusta (Ga.) Chronicle‘s Web site has implemented it; others are poised for rollout in the coming months. According to Vice President of Strategy and Content Steve Yelvington, his team is currently tweaking the model to figure out what schemes work best for what markets.

But in general, the Morris approach is to place some content as behind the registration wall, but not all. Go to the home page of, for example, and click through to a story on the Metro news page. You’ll hit a registration wall (unless you previously registered and the site remembers you). But click on a wire story off the home page and you won’t hit the wall. It’s the same for message boards, golf news, some sports data and classified advertising — no registration requirement.

Yelvington says having a mix of open and controlled-access content is a “no-brainer.” Classifieds, for instance, benefit from as wide an audience as possible to benefit those who paid for the ads, so there’s no good reason to put up a registration speed bump that might deter some viewing. Open access to the Augusta Chronicle‘s golf coverage — the city is home to the fabled Masters golf championship each year — is another obvious choice, because it attracts a national and international audience. The site can sell national advertising on its golf site, and there’s less need for user demographic information other than for local Web visitors.

What about the non-local users who want to see a local story but may not visit the site often enough to feel like registration is worth the bother? Yelvington quips: “That begs the question of if I want you to read that story or not [if you’re not a local]. Maybe I don’t.” And that’s because “I don’t have a business model built around stray cats,” he says — but rather on attempting to monetize local users by gathering information on them and utilizing that information on behalf of advertisers seeking to sell to local consumers.

Morris isn’t stuck on this model, by the way. The company also is considering “gentler” approaches, such as allowing the viewing of controlled-access content for several visits before registration is required. For more on that kind of approach, read on.

You Have to Register, But Later …

Next up is a registration model that still requires a user to provide personal information, but not right away. An increasingly popular model puts a site-visit limit on unhindered access. The idea here is that the first few times a new user visits a site, she is not asked to register. The site sets a cookie on the new user’s computer, then after the third or fourth visit requires registration before serving any additional content.

What’s the point of this? If you’re primarily after a local/regional audience, you may not find much value in people from around the country or world being added to your user database. This technique keeps one-time visitors from having to register, and they still get to see the content they were seeking. Regular users can be counted on to visit your site more than a few times, so once they’re hooked, that’s the time to demand registration.

This strategy is particularly handy for news sites that have a fairly large audience of out-of-towners — markets such as Las Vegas. In a resort location like Aspen, Colo., where there are not only tourists but lots of part-time second-home owners who have a strong connection but don’t live there, this strategy works well, too. Locals will likely register with a local news site that requires registration after a few visits, and so will motivated part-time residents. The one-time visitors probably won’t use the site enough to ever get to the registration screen.

A Gentler Approach

Not every online-news manager believes in the forced collection of users’ personal information. For them, the next model is a variation of the one above, and it’s represented by the Web site of The San Diego Union-Tribune, The site persistently requests registration data from users, but never demands it.

As Director of Internet Operations Chris Jennewein explains it, new visitors to his site are free to access any free content on the first three visits, without being bothered about registering. After three visits, the user will be asked to register before seeing inside content such as full-text articles. However, there’s an option for “Ask me again later.” Click that and you have another three sessions of unhindered site viewing before the registration request appears again.

And each time the registration request appears, there continues to be the “Later” option. In theory, a SignOnSanDiego user could never register and still get full access to the site’s content. Of course, Jennewein hopes that regular users will get tired of that and simply register. “We keep after you — but politely,” he says. “In the end I’d rather have satisfied [registered online] readers than ones pummeled into giving out their personal information.” is only into its third month of this registration scheme, and Jennewein reports that there are about 33,000 registered users currently — compared to an average of 125,000 daily unique visitors. However, registrations are being added at the rate of 10,000 to 15,000 a month. Ergo, he’s hopeful that registered users will catch up to daily visitor numbers within about a year.

This model makes sense in certain markets, where you have a substantial audience segment that’s likely to resist registration. San Diego fits that bill, because it’s both a tourist destination and a large miltiary town. Jennewein notes that a substantial portion of his site’s user base is comprised of military families based in Southern California. currently doesn’t ask for much information — just the basics: ZIP code, sex and age. Jennewein thinks that at this point, simple demographic targeting is all that’s really salable. Asking more, he fears, could reduce the number of site visitors willing to register. Besides, if down the road the company decides that it wants or needs more data from users, the same “ask politely” approach can be taken with existing users to get them to give more — possibly with some incentives to cooperate.

One interesting tidbit from Jennewein: In the first three months of this gentle registration approach, the site has yet to receive a single complaint.

Different People, Different Registration

There’s one last variation, and it’s more sophisticated than anything I’ve mentioned above — which is probably why it’s yet to be implemented in the online-news industry. In a nutshell, it involves altering the user registration process to adapt to different types of readers — a concept touted by Dave Morgan, a guru on registration topics and founder and CEO of Tacoda, an online advertising services company that specializes in sophisticated ad targeting based on demographics and user behavior.

Morgan advises altering the registration process based on what you know about the individuals coming to your site. Through IP filtering, you can learn (with a minimal degree of accuracy) whether a site visitor is coming in from your site’s geographical area or from far out of your market. If it’s an out-of-market visitor, you might turn off site registration — or ask a different set of questions.

Probably better (and far more accurate) is to ask first-time site visitors something very simple and useful to you — such as their ZIP code, and nothing else. Once you know whether they’re in-market or not, you can then decide where to go next. For in-market visitors, you’ll probably want to collect a bunch of personal data, which is potentially valuable for targeting local-based advertising to your site’s audience. For out-of-market visitors, unless your business model has a means for monetizing them, you may just want to halt the registration process right there. (But set a cookie on their computer so that next time they come to visit, they won’t have to enter a postal code again.)

Morgan suggests asking a different set of questions during registration based on the type of visitors they are. In addition to asking for their ZIP code up front, you might also ask a lifestyle or age question. Based on the answers, then you can collect more personal information that can be useful down the road for more intense targeted marketing. “There’s no reason that [during a site’s registration process] you have to ask the same eight questions,” he says.

Where this concept gets interesting is in taking better advantage of your out-of-market readers. A primarily local-interest news Web site may well get a large and broad national audience, for example, even though most of the site’s advertisers want to target local consumers. By identifying out-of-market users, and collecting information on them that’s different from what you collect on local users, you may be able to take an audience segment that currently means nothing to you and convert it into something of value to marketers.

For example, by collecting out-of-market user data, you might develop something that your sales department can sell to tour or travel companies — an audience of out-of-towners with an interest in your area who might buy airline tickets or hotel rooms. Markets like Florida, with a heavy seasonal population of “snow-birds,” represent good potential for this concept. It represents a good opportunity to tap convention and visitors bureau money being spent by your city, Morgan suggests.

When to Turn It Off

One more thing to consider in devising your user-registration model : The Big Story. When a major news event happens in your back yard, you’re going to get Web visitors coming from all over the world. Draconian registration schemes are typically a failure under this scenario. If this is how your site operates, at least plan to temporarily turn off site registration when the big one hits. There’s little to be gained from having tens or hundreds of thousands of one-time visitors to your site register.

If you’ve chosen one of the gentler models, you’re probably already set for the big story.

Choosing the Right Plan for Your Site

How to set up your news site’s user registration scheme varies from market to market. But some general rules do apply:

* If your news site regularly attracts significant numbers of tourists and potential tourists, figure out how to not scare them off with an onerous registration scheme.

* If you want to be draconian about collecting data from all users, make sure you have no competitors and that your content is so valuable that people will jump through hoops in order to get at it.

* Remember that sometimes you can achieve the same end by requesting personal information from users, rather than demanding it — and you’ll leave your site’s users less reason to be annoyed with you.

* There’s no one right answer to the question, How much should we ask? There’s currently a split in the industry — with sites such as asking only the basics, and sites such those of Belo asking for lots of personal information from users up front. Belo’s executives claim success with that approach — with minimal drop-off by site visitors when asked to supply a lot of personal data.

* If your company operates news sites in multiple markets, treat each site individually. The registration scheme that works in one may not be appropriate for another. Forcing cookie-cutter registration schemes on every site in your company could be a mistake.

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