The just-released 2022 Digital News Report from the Reuters Institute at Oxford University notes two items of particular interest in our data-invested corner of the world:
- Low prevalance of reader registrations.
- Low trust that publishers will do the right things with data.
The first item is the somewhat disheartening perspective that not only are barely above a quarter (28% ) of news readers registered for one or more news sites but that media companies are not terribly well-positioned to improve on these numbers: “Across our entire sample, only around a third (32%) say they trust news Web sites to use personal data responsibly — ahead of social media sites (25%), but at a similar level to trust in online retailers (33%),” according to the Reuters Institute report.
The report further shows a “clear link between general trust and people’s willingness to trust publishers with their data.” This has the implication that — when it comes to the battle for logging in users and being able to be trusted with our users’ data — the institutional positioning, the editorial clarity, and product expression of the publisher’s trustworthiness are far more at issue than the more technical dimensions of a well-functioning login system or the pure capabilities of a customer data platform.
To put it another way: It tells us that our ability to successfully build businesses powered by good, clean, first-party data is first going to hinge on creating value and purpose, as well as knowing how to communicate that value and purpose to the user so we can credibly log enough users. This comes before publishers can even begin to try and optimise how to use this data.
Furthermore, two other dimensions affect our ability to log in users.
- Smartphone prevalence: The first is that smartphones remain the most prevalent devices to access news continuing to gain share, and this has historically been a device where log-in experiences were subpar relative to the desktop. So, everything else being equal for a set of users with enough trust to accept to register, fewer of these users will be logged into their phone.
- Decline in direct access: The second dimension is the continued decline of users who access news sites directly — from the homepage of a news site or their native app: 32% were coming in via direct access in 2018 versus 23% in 2022 on average worldwide.
The report highlights that this is partly due to generational changes with new, younger readers having built their news habits from social media. Regardless, this is important for news publishers because our ability to obtain data — both the quantity and quality — is also lower with these audiences. Direct access to our products is usually the fact of a well-habituated user — the type who will be more likely to agree to register and log in.
What to do with e-mail
Now, onto everyone’s favourite old-new product: e-mail newsletters —certainly a province of hopes and dreams when it comes to first-party data since the e-mail newsletter user is a known user (for the most part).
The report notes that while e-mail remains a productive channel for news publishers, “despite the increase in the supply of newsletters in the last few years, the proportion accessing them has actually fallen in many countries, in part because of increased competition from newer channels such as social media, online aggregators, and news alerts via mobile phones. In the United States, weekly use has fallen slightly from 27% to 22% since 2014 as the use of mobile alerts has tripled from 6% to 20% and social media access has also grown.”
This is troublesome for news publishers because e-mail can also be considered a soft login when clicking through. So, having more e-mail users isn’t just good for habits and sheer pageviews, it’s good because it’s a trackable user. Depending on which e-mail sending platform (ESP) a publisher uses, news publishers can use links with tracking identifiers that can uniquely identify the e-mail address to whom this link was sent.
Sure, Apple’s changing privacy protection rules now make individual opens impossible to track, but link tracking is still around.
As a publisher looking to enrich your data about a known user’s content preference, you could consider the click from a personally identifiable link a form of “soft log in” and identify a whole session for a given user even if they weren’t “properly” logged in.
In other words, a good e-mail originated session is almost as good as a regular browsing session done after a proper log in. The term “soft log in” will vary in its meaning and reach by publishers; it’s certainly a product decision to act on it. The most common soft login is when a user is clicking on an unsubscribe link. They are not made to log in, yet the publisher ESP knows very well which user this is because the link has a unique identifier on it, and this is how they know to unsubscribe a specific user from a list.
So, where next?
On log-in, we may see some improvement through purely mechanical ways. But the bulk of our work is clear: trust and a product that conveys the upside of registration.
The mechanical improvement that may be helping us is that Big Tech is working on leaning on the FIDO alliance to, essentially, make login far easier and automated.
On e-mail, there is no real upside because if the new Reuters Institute report tells us anything, it is to not over-hype ourselves (punchline: pivot to video). Sure, e-mail is having a resurgence in that, if anything, we as an industry probably unfairly discounted it for a while. But it’s not a silver bullet, just like subscriptions aren’t a silver bullet for our revenue challenges.
When it comes to data, the publisher’s ability to build a clearer and better picture of users is going to come from working on several angles, all at once. Just because new newsletters are being born every day doesn’t mean they will save publishing — or publisher data.
If you’d like to subscribe to my bi-weekly newsletter, INMA members can do so here.