TCS Daily

Registration Required

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - January 29, 2003 12:00 AM

Editor and Publisher reports that readers don't mind registering for websites, and predicts that a lot more media sites will start demanding registration:

Well, as it turns out, the bogeyman - like Bigfoot - should no longer be feared. It's nothing more than a phantom menace. According to an exclusive E&P survey, newspaper sites that built up registration walls last year have found that readers didn't leave in droves. In fact, several of these papers now have more online visitors than they had before requiring registration.

More important, these sites are already seeing new revenue as a result of registration, only a few months after they began to request demographic data from their users. "We've gone from zero dollars to seven figures in 2002 - all from sponsored e-mail products" that require user registration, says Eric Christensen, vice president and general manager of Dallas-based Belo Interactive Inc., which began requiring full Web-site registration for the first time last year.

As word of this and similar successes spreads, more publishers are gearing up to build registration firewalls this year.

Oh, goody. As a web publisher of sorts myself, I'm not irretrievably against registration, I guess. I do it as a hobby, but I understand that other people have to make a living. But I don't like it. The reason is that it makes the websurfing process less transparent. It interrupts things. And registration schemes often don't work properly, requiring you to re-enter the same data over and over again. So here's some advice for Big Media publishers, from someone who surfs the Web more than most:

1. Make it easy: Don't present people with long lists of questions. If you do, they'll just lie anyway. (Take a look at those lists of information you collect: how many people have given their email as "", and do you have an implausibly large number of 97-year-old black women living in Alaska as readers? I'll bet you do.) People don't mind a little of this kind of thing - they appreciate that you're giving your product away. But they do mind when it goes beyond "a little" - and their idea of "a little" is "really, only a little."

2. Don't get greedy: Popups or registration? Maybe. But I've nearly quit reading the Los Angeles Times because of its unholy combination of slow-loading pop-ups (by the dozens, it sometimes seems) and registration. It's not worth it. The Internet is a big place.

3. Impact matters, too. I know you guys aren't in this for your health. Fine. But you are in it for impact - political, journalistic, and cultural. Otherwise you'd be making refrigerators, or something. Cumbersome models that make people less willing to read cost a lot in that department. It's no coincidence that the British Guardian newspaper gets far more attention in the United States than its actual importance in Britain would suggest, while London's Times gets less. The Guardian has a truly first-rate Web operation: easy to read, easy to navigate, and no registration required. The Times, on the other hand, though better of late, has endured a number of dumb initiatives and false starts that have chased away a lot of web readers (including me, to some degree). (The New York Times, on the other hand, makes the registration fairly painless, doesn't require reregistration, and has been quite consistent in how it has handled the subject. It's also making money off its Web operation. Is there a lesson there?)

4. What's this about "email products?" That sounds suspiciously like something we usually call "spam". I don't want it, and neither does anyone else. You may gull people into paying for that for a little while, but unless you make the "product" something that people really want, and let them opt in and out easily, you're spamming. Nobody ever built a brand on spam. Not even Spam did.

Proof that this stuff matters at more than the Andy Rooney level: A few weeks back, I mentioned to a reporter who was interviewing me that I was thinking about writing on this topic. The response: "Please do!" Reporters want to be read, and working for a newspaper that has an intrusive registration scheme, or a lot of popups, makes them unhappy. Ditto with columnists, and probably even editors. Make them unhappy, and they'll either ask for more money, or leave and go somewhere that makes them happier.

That's part of the bottom line, too.

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