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Publishers miss opportunity to collect data when registering subscribers

Today, news organizations are striving to convince advertisers that their first-party data (information collected from users on their website) is more valuable than third-party data from Facebook or Google.

To understand how newspapers are approaching this challenge, the American Press Institute analyzed what user information is collected when a person registers for a digital subscription. Our analysis found that basics like name and email are always required for a digital subscription, but no newspaper asked about interests, education, or income.

While digital subscriptions have typically referred to monetary exchanges, consider that in August 2015, Time Inc. CEO Joe Ripp explained that “We are testing various iterations to see how we can push you from an anonymous user to a registered user. … Payment could simply be you sharing data with us, so we can know more about you.”

Indeed, while Time Inc. is changing Entertainment Weekly’s website to a metered digital subscription model, it is also funneling users to create accounts. After 10 free articles, if a customer registers, they are allowed to read 5 more articles for free. This encourages more people to register while emphasizing how many articles they are reading.

Payment could simply be you sharing data with us, so we can know more about you.

When a user registers, they answer questions about their coverage interests. This information will be used for consumer research and advertising. Thus, this approach encourages users to register and collects data to provide a better product to consumers and advertisers.

The CEO of Piano Media (which acquired Press+ in September 2014 and merged with Tinypass in August 2015) has previously explained that publishers can use data to “inform a range of activities including advertising targeting, subscription-offer pricing and configuration, the merchandising of digital subscriptions and even decisions about how to allocate limited resources to create content.” This type of data encompasses the demographics of users, what their interests are, and what content they consume.

While data from a newspaper can be combined with data from Facebook or Google for the purposes of selling digital ads, newspapers also could collect that demographic information themselves. For example, as Digiday recently detailed, the Financial Times asks registered users to provide their industry, role, and job title. It then charges advertisers 20-50% more to advertise to readers who identified themselves as C-suite executives, financial advisers and other high-value professions.

However, of the 77 newspapers with digital subscriptions that the American Press Institute examined, no newspaper asked about the subscribers’ interests, profession, or education.1

Some newspapers may worry that asking for more information would slow down the signup process and cause some people to not complete it — a valid concern but one that might be alleviated through better design and user testing. Other papers may simply have not thought to ask for this additional information and have not anticipated the value of such data.

For whatever reasons, to register for a digital subscription most newspapers only require your payment information, name, email, address, and phone number, as detailed in the chart below.

Type of data Percent
Name 100%
Email 100%
Address 94%
Phone 75%
Display name 17%
Gender 17%
Birth year 16%
Date of birth 1%
Housing type 1%
Title 1%
Interests 0%
Profession 0%
Education 0%

American Press Institute

As Frédéric Filloux has discussed, reader data can also allow publishers to provide customized content that channels the reader towards specific news coverage or ancillary benefits. For example, if a reader works in the legal field, coverage of judicial proceedings or opportunities to attend events featuring the legal beat writer could be emphasized. More broadly, a publication could also realize whether their coverage matches the interests of their audience base.

While no newspaper that the American Press Institute examined was similar to the Financial Times in terms of requesting user information, the Tribune Publishing Co. is channeling users toward creating more registered accounts.

Reader data can also allow publishers to provide customized content that channels the reader towards specific news coverage or ancillary benefits.

Tribune uses what could be called a “premium metered” model, which may persuade more readers to create user accounts.2 On the newspaper website, article headlines may contain a “premium content” symbol. Readers are required to create a free account to access any premium content. After users read 5 premium articles, they are required to subscribe to read additional premium content that month.

By doing so, these newspapers are better able to identify if a person uses multiple devices (such as a work computer, home computer, and mobile device). Without registration, such a user might be analyzed as three different people. Moreover, they have the contact information of a greater proportion of their digital readers, which can allow them to market special introductory offers towards them.

Lastly, consider that Steve Goldberg, managing editor at Empirical Media, argued that the value of registered data is diminished because publications have too few registered accounts. “For almost all publishers, the best they can do is use it as a filter in addition to — versus as a replacement for — third-party data,” Goldberg said. “One of the challenges is that paywall subscribers tend to be a small fraction of the overall audience.”

By funneling users toward creating registered accounts, and collecting more detailed information about their demographics and interests, publishers can increase the value of their digital subscriptions to both readers and advertisers.

  1. The Oklahoman did ask for a title (such as Mr., Dr., etc.).
  2. Tribune Publishing has announced plans to change its digital subscription strategy in 2016.

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