Media Briefing: How publishers are trying to get around the registration wall problem

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This Media Briefing covers the latest in media trends for Digiday+ members and is distributed over email every Thursday at 10 a.m. ET. More from the series →

This week’s Media Briefing looks at the various ways in which publishers are collecting readers’ emails without relying on a strict registration wall.

  • Registrations without the wall
  • Podcast ad spending is slowing, but still growing
  • Gannett mandates unpaid leave and other cost cutting measures, Bloomberg changes its programmatic strategy and more

Registrations without the wall

The key hits: 

  • Publishers are struggling to collect new readers’ emails with traditional, unmalleable registration walls alone.
  • Facebook has turned out to be a strong conversion channel to turn readers into newsletter subscribers and provide publishers with emails from audiences who are new to the site. 
  • Comment sections, however, are not delivering on the first-party data that some publishers, including Salon, had hoped. 

Collecting first-party data is still a priority for many publishers — despite Google’s continued delay in removing third-party cookies from its Chrome browser — and getting an email address remains top of the list as one of the most valuable identifiers that media companies can gain from their audiences. 

The problem is casual, first-time visitors to a publisher’s website are far less inclined to divulge that information about themselves, unless there’s a good incentive to do so. And what many publishers are realizing is that a hard registration wall that forces someone to give up their email address to continue reading is almost too blunt of an ask. There needs to be an irresistible value proposition that readers, new and loyal alike, cannot turn down.

Therefore, some media executives have begun experimenting with other iterations of a registration wall, from one that only pops up when readers come to the site through a Facebook link to an optional registration wall that operates on the belief that if you ask nicely, you’ll get what you want. 

Newsletters and email alerts 

It seems like a no-brainer that, if you want an email, you offer someone a newsletter. For many publishers, it’s worked: they’ve captured emails and generated leads for potential paid subscribers. 

But going a step further, some publishers are finding that low-lift, automatic email alerts that send readers links to the latest stories on a specific topic or by a specific author are just as impactful in getting new emails.

Torstar, parent company of The Toronto Star, has 330,000 newsletter subscribers, about half of whom are signed up for the breaking news email alert, according to David Topping, newsroom director, newsletters.  

The alerts are bucketed into four categories: breaking news, investigation updates, special topic reports and author-specific stories. There are about 40 total email alerts, and they’ve been good at capturing readers who are invested in a topic but worry they’re going to miss the next piece of a story, especially if an update only comes out once every few months, like in the ongoing reporting around a serial killer investigation. 

Putting registration walls on Facebook ads

Two months ago, the Toronto Star started working with vendor Social News Desk to run ads for the paper’s stories on Facebook. After clicking the link in the ad, they hit a registration wall that required them to sign up for the Star’s Daily Newsletter to keep reading. 

The articles used in these ads are typically paywalled and aren’t unlocked or unmetered for any other reader. Only by signing up for the newsletter through the registration walls in these specific Facebook ads will readers get to access that article for free, Topping said. 

In a given week, he said that these ads are converting thousands of people, most of whom are not currently a newsletter subscriber or a paid subscriber, though he would not provide exact figures. 

Topping’s team is unable to break out the open rates of newsletter subscriptions who were collected through this channel, but he did say that, in the two months since regularly using this registration tool, the open rates and overall performance of the Daily newsletter has not gone down, indicating that this audience is as engaged as those who signed up through the Toronto Star’s owned and operated channels.

One publisher who spoke during a Town Hall discussion at the Digiday Publishing Summit last month — where attendees were granted anonymity so they could speak openly and freely about the challenges they’re facing in their businesses — said their team also saw success in asking Facebook group members for their emails.

“We converted almost 3 million of our Facebook users to newsletter [subscribers]. That’s been a huge win for us because newsletters [are] monetized much better,” they said.

Known commenters only 

The comment section is another area that publishers have been putting up a pseudo-registration wall, in part to keep anonymous trolls from leaving inappropriate or hateful comments, but also as another opportunity to collect an email address or create a known user account on their website.

This doesn’t generate enough emails on its own, however, leading publishers to search for other places on their site to ask for emails, or to abandon the comment section altogether. 

“It’s not anything they’re interested in; it’s something that’s going to take way too long to implement; [and] it’s not really going to get used,” said another media exec in the DPS Town Hall.

Salon got rid of its comment section a year ago, and according to CRO Justin Wohl, at the time less than half a percent of the approximately 10 million monthly unique visitors to the site were commenters.

“Some of the incentives that you’d offer as features are pretty weak — like, this will allow you to comment or bookmark. At a stakeholder expectation management level, how are we going to convert our readership? It just doesn’t work that way,” said another media exec.  

The optional registration wall? 

During the same DPS Town Hall, other anonymous media execs spoke about their fears that a proper registration wall would interfere with traffic coming in from social or search audiences, also known as the “one-and-done” crowd. 

So why not just give them the option to leave their email by asking nicely instead of forcing them?

This audience segment typically has little brand loyalty so forcing them to cough up their email to read a timely news article or a trending story could be off putting and cause them to leave without reading at all. 

“We’ve got the mechanics in place [to put up a registration wall]; it’s really about, when is it appropriate to do that with free ad-supported content?” said another media executive in the group.

What we’ve heard

“Our union has taken the position — [which] we believe is supported by the National Labor Relations Board — that returning to office is a mandatory subject of bargaining, which means that they cannot unilaterally implement it.”

— Susan DeCarava, president of the NewsGuild of New York, on the latest episode of the Digiday Podcast.

Podcast ad spending is slowing, but still growing

The softening advertising market hasn’t hit podcast ad spending quite as hard as digital publishing or TV, but publishers and ad agencies say the rate is starting to slow. 

“The inbound activity of new RFPs is lower than it was 90 days ago,” said David Spiegel, CRO of Betches Media. Despite this, podcasts are still considered a growth area for the company, though he declined to share revenue figures.

Wonder Media Network is also receiving fewer RFPs, said Shira Atkins, CRO and co-founder of the podcast network in a Digiday Podcast interview last month

“We’re definitely not getting the same flow that we used to and usually this time of year is the busiest time of year for us,” Atkins said. “That could be because the clip at which agencies are planning ahead is also shifting.”

On the agency side, Mediahub’s associate director for national audio investments, Jacob Schwartz, said questions were coming in from clients about potential budget shifts, but there haven’t been any changes with podcast dollars once they’re placed. Stephen Smyk, svp of podcast and influencer marketing at agency Veritone One, said despite “fear” among some clients, ad spend was “still growing, albeit at a slower rate than previously.”

It’s the same story at podcast hosting and monetization platform Acast, said Christiana Brenton, Acast’s U.S. director of sales and partnerships. Despite a slowdown in Q3, however, the company is pacing well again in Q4, she said.

“You can have short-term impact from recessional tendencies from the market. But what that means is that advertisers are only scrutinizing their channel mix more. There will be a period of slowing down while they reevaluate. And we’re seeing that evaluation is actually coming out really positively for podcasting,” Brenton said. – Sara Guaglione

Numbers to know

$82,943: The average reporter salary in 2022, up from $58,858 in 2020, according to The INN Member Compensation Study. 

$12: The new price that Amazon Prime members will pay for a monthly subscription to The Washington Post, up from $3.99, which had been the price since 2015. 

8%: The amount that digital advertising revenue for Reach plc, parent company of Mirror, fell in September following the death of Queen Elizabeth, showing how much the mourning period impacted advertising in the U.K. media industry. 

What we’ve covered

Digiday+ Research: How publishers are using AI to enhance reporting, personalize content and provide customer service:

  • More publishers have come to rely on data-driven personalization than ever before, with usage rates climbing over the past five years.
  • Digiday+ Research surveyed 388 industry professionals to uncover how they’re currently using data-driven personalization and natural language processing — and how they plan to incorporate the technologies in the future.

Learn more about how the media industry is using emerging technologies in their business here.

‘Do whatever it takes’: How the NewsGuild of New York is training journalists to create strong unions:

  • Unionization has been on the rise at media companies over the last nearly three years after the pandemic upended the way publishers work, according to Susan DeCarava, president of the NewsGuild of New York. 
  • In the latest episode of the Digiday Podcast, DeCarava discusses why unionization is on the rise and how her team has implemented programs like the Strike School to help embolden media employees to make change within their companies.

Listen to the conversation with DeCarava here

Why The Washington Post wants to expand a daily newsletter into a podcast, local version:

  • A year after The Washington Post debuted a short newsletter called “The 7,” the publication is expanding the franchise with a podcast format this fall and a more specific, local version for people in the Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia area.
  • Text-to-speech tech translates each briefing into an audio version.

Read more about the Post’s newsletter and audio strategy here

How a global digital news startup will pay its employees equally across locations:

  • Rest of World, a nonprofit newsroom covering global tech stories is headquartered in New York City but has reporters based in Mexico, the U.K., India, Hong Kong, Japan and Indonesia.
  • Salaries for regional editors start at $80,000 and contributors are typically paid between 75 cents to $1 per word for reported stories. 

Learn more about Rest of World’s pay structure here.

Publishers are taking a longer form approach to event activations:

  • Gallery Media Group is anchoring its new experiential strategy on House of Wow, named for the publisher’s lifestyle brand PureWow. 
  • As Gallery Media Group becomes the latest publisher to launch a months-long residence in New York, it begs the question, how successful are these businesses given the overwhelming overhead that comes with the territory? 

Read more about publishers’ long form events strategy here.

What we’re reading

Gannett issues pay cuts and mandatory furloughs timed for the holidays:

On Wednesday, Gannett’s leadership told employees during a 15-minute long meeting that there would be mandatory furloughs, optional buyouts, pausing employees’ 401(k) match and a hiring freeze, according to a tweet from Kati Kokal, education reporter at Gannett’s The Palm Beach Post. Mike Davis, another employee of Gannett, added in a tweet that at management’s discretion, a 30- to 32-hour-per-week schedule will be instituted and employees will take a 15% pay cut. 

ESPN and DraftKings are nearing a large-scale partnership:

ESPN’s chairman Jimmy Pitaro is looking for more ways to “eliminate friction” for the sports bettors in its audience who go from reading sports betting content to placing actual bets, Bloomberg reported, and DraftKings is looking like the ideal partner to help accomplish that goal.

The Chicago-Sun Times is dropping its paywall:

Chicago Public Media, the paper’s new owners who took over in January, is removing the site’s monthly subscription cost of $7.49 and is, instead, moving to a public radio-style membership program, according to Nieman Lab. 

Bloomberg Media will stop serving open-market, third-party programmatic ads: 

Open-market, third-party programmatic display ads will no longer run across Bloomberg Media’s website and mobile app, starting Jan. 1, 2023, per Adweek. The business publisher is also discontinuing its use of vendors like Taboola that recommend stories that divert traffic away from its website.

CNN abandons its NFT project, Vault by CNN: 

CNN has stopped the development of its NFT marketplace, which was meant to sell collectible ‘Moments’ tied to major news events, reported The Verge.

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