With all the attention paid to the demise of the New York Times' TimesSelect a few months back, an even more pervasive and odious practice by newspaper Web sites continues: Putting registration walls in front of visiting readers.
I wrote about this a year ago, and the situation hasn't gotten any better: Too many newspaper sites still are requiring registration before allowing visitors to view stories and advertising.
What's the point? I totally understand requiring registration before visitors post content on a site, such as comments—that's just good practice. But the reason for requiring registration to read escapes me. The argument you'll get is that it allows the sites to better target advertising, but that's hogwash—there just aren't that many newspaper sites doing sophisticated ad targeting. And any advantage there is doubtless outweighed by traffic lost when frustrated visitors hit the wall and decide to take their business elsewhere.
Registration-to-read is a relic of bygone days, the result of too much influence by the marketing and circulation departments over the Web site. I've heard the internal discussions: "It allows us to see if our print subscribers are using the Web site—and then we can target the visitors who aren't subscribers, and try to sell them subscriptions!" Spare me. It isn't worth ticking off occasional visitors—and because of Google, Drudge, etc., at least 25 or 30 percent of newspaper site visitors are, at best, occasional—to collect data that, frankly, is never going to be used.
Scott Karp has a great post on this subject, wondering exactly what the ROI (that's return on investment, non-MBAs) is on newspaper site registration. Does it really increase advertising revenue or have other benefits that make it worth chasing away visitors who just want to read one story or sample the site? Karp writes:
The theory goes that personal data collected from registered users enables sites to better target ads and charge premium rates. But I wonder whether the lost traffic from users who choose not to jump through the registration hoop — which I bet is particularly true of NYTimes’ large volume of visitors from search engines — outweighs the gain of higher ads rates.
You have to wonder in the age of behavioral targeting networks ... which derive user data based on user actions, e.g. what types of content they view, whether creating a content access barrier to collect data about users is really necessary.
Those are good questions, and they should be asked constantly inside newspaper Web operations. In recently reviewing registration requirements at Philly.com, we've decided against requiring registration to read the site, because it's a barrier to traffic. We do have—and will improve on—a sort of graduated registration system for content creation by visitors, with different levels of required information based on what they're doing on the site. But we're not going to get in the way of people who want to visit the site and read our content (and see the adjacent ads).
And here's a telling anecdote: There's a major newspaper site that quietly turned off its registration requirement for a few months a year or so ago. Nobody—and I mean nobody—noticed, insiders tell me. The registration eventually got turned back on (not having it drove the marketing and circulation folks nuts, I suspect), but the site's leaders aren't sure how much longer they'll stick with it.
Notably, of course, very, very few non-newspaper (or magazine) sites require registration for visitors. Gee, think they know something?
As I said a year ago: Newspapers, tear down that (registration) wall!