Media Briefing: How publishers are trying to get people to log in to their sites

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 →

All about the log-in

Audience authentication is top priority for many publishers in 2024, but it’s not as easy as capturing an email. 

Whether they’re capturing an email, a user’s IP address or their device ID, publishers are turning that into a unique identifier that can be used to recreate the mosaic of demographic info and audience segments that inform each user’s identity in a post-third-party cookie world.

But that identifier won’t matter if the users aren’t constantly logged into their accounts or coming from the same browser and device. Changing the browser, device or other entry points into a website will likely mean that the user has to re-sign in, and if they don’t, all of the information gathered about them on another browser is essentially lost.

“We don’t believe there is really true first-party data beyond people that are logged in, because it’s not just a third-party cookie going away, but all the browsers have also weakened the first-party cookie. It’s very difficult for publishers to know that you’re the same person that came back that was here seven days ago,” said a media executive who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Audience authentication in 2024 is very much focused on maintaining authentication, versus just filling the funnel with new emails. 

How publishers are doing that varies, though, based on interviews with five publishers for this story. In some cases, they are trying to reduce the friction and/or raise the incentives for people to log in; in others, they are sidestepping the log-in process altogether by collecting personally identifiable information, such as IP addresses and device IDs.

One-step log-ins 

Justin Wohl, CRO of Salon, Snopes and TV Tropes, said that currently 5% of TVTropes.org’s total 150 million monthly pageviews are perpetually logged in, meaning they’ve created an account with their email. But the goal this year is to increase that share to about 10% on both the Safari and Chrome browsers, which represent about 80% of the sites’ total audience. That would mean approximately 16-17% of TV Tropes’s total traffic would be authenticated, though “20% would be excellent if we get there,” he said. 

Single-step sign-ins, like those where people can sign-in using their Amazon, Apple, Facebook or Google accounts, is the predominant method that Wohl and his team is pursuing in 2024 to try and capture as many emails and keep those accounts active across browsers. 

“I think that, for a user, there’s something easier about it being a prompt from your browser versus being a prompt from the publisher … it’ll be easier to swallow especially without overthinking it,” said Wohl. “But all of them basically for us do the same thing which is let the user sign in easily and provide us the email address, from which we can then generate the UID 2.0 [ID].” 

It’s unclear what happens in the event someone signs in with Apple and has opted into the “hide my email” feature, which uses a dummy email address in lieu of the user’s real address. This would, in theory, render the UID 2.0 ID useless. Wohl didn’t offer up details on this scenario.

The first media exec said that the mandate from their company’s C-suite this year is determining how to get people to log in, even if they’re jumping into the site from a social media post to see a quick news blurb. Across the company’s portfolio, the exec said that currently about 20% of the total online sessions are from authenticated users, a.k.a. readers who are logged into their accounts. 

“Having their newsletter email address doesn’t tell you [who that person is] unless they’re actually logged in,” said the media exec, adding that the goal this year is to increase the cohort of logged-in audience, but they do not have a finite percentage they’re hoping to achieve. 

The exec’s company is also testing Google and Facebook one-step sign-in options, as well as magic links, which will text or email a temporary code to users who don’t remember their account passwords. It’s unclear what happens if someone uses the magic link to receive the code via text versus email, such as if that’ll lead to that user being assigned two separate identifiers. 

Every time that user logs back in, the exec said they also use that opportunity to build out the user profile even further by asking them a seemingly innocuous question based on trending news, such as which team they’re rooting for in the Super Bowl. It’s designed to learn a little bit more about the user and help determine which audience segments or demographics they fit into without brazenly asking for personal information, which can be off-putting. 

Sweeten the ask 

Adding value to a point of log-in and reminding users of that added value is another way in which some publishers are trying to increase their share of authenticated audiences. 

“The percentage of users that come to your site that are willing to log in and authenticate on your platform, that’s critical because … you will have more first-party data and alternative IDs will be more successful,” said Emry DowningHall, svp of programmatic revenue and strategy at Unwind Media, which owns two online Solitaire gaming sites. He did not say how much of the publishers’ monthly pageviews are logged-in on average. 

Though niche to a casual gaming publisher, DowningHall said that his team offers logged-in users the ability to save their lifetime stats and how they’ve improved their gameplay over time. He also said that his team will be experimenting with customized user experiences that non-logged-in users don’t have access to. 

The first media exec said their team is testing adding value to the logged-in user experience through community-driven additives, similar to a Substack model with popular journalists on staff, or perhaps working with local businesses to create a discount card that users gain access to when they register. And to convince them to log in again on other browsers, they said they’re testing content personalization to see if curated article recommendations are a desirable enough user experience that they’d be willing to log in for it. 

Beyond email 

Relying on email addresses alone doesn’t sit well with other publishers who are equally focused on authenticating their audiences and building their cache of first-party data to brace for the cookiepocalypse. 

“I don’t know how many email addresses you have, but I have about four or five so email is not always the most reliable way to identify a person,” said Terry Guyton-Bradley, senior director of ad tech and programmatic management at Fortune. “You have to have other ways in which you can triangulate the identity of the person in addition to the email.” 

In this case, IP addresses and device IDs are a critical part of increasing the first-party data Guyton-Bradley’s team is able to accumulate about the site’s users. Permutive and Bombora are the two third-party vendors that Fortune is using to capture that information and turn it into alternative IDs. 

Right now, Fortune’s logged-in audience, who used their email to create an account, consists of about 3% and the goal is to increase that to between 5-7% this year, Guyton-Bradley said. But one of the other concerns he has around growing and relying on that base of hashed emails is that “people will bounce if they feel like they’re being pushed too hard to do something that they’re not willing to do. They’ll [say] it’s not worth it. You threw too many hoops in order to read your content.”

Ideally, Fortune’s total logged-in audience will end up around 10-12%, but in the meantime, the IDs produced from IP addresses and device IDs will close the gaps. However, IP addresses are not exactly future-proof identifiers. Apple and Google have been clamping down on companies’ abilities to collect IP addresses, and IP addresses can be difficult to pin to an individual since they are typically shared by all devices that connect to a given internet modem or router.

Abandoning the registration wall altogether 

For as much as publishers are prioritizing authentication in 2024, some are opting against one method of getting people to log in: the registration wall. For Dotdash Meredith, asking a user to log in prior to gaining access to an article or site is a degree of friction the publisher isn’t willing to add to the user experience.

“We’re not going to put up a registration wall to try and make us more money. That is a solution of a publisher doing something to make the publisher more money. That is not something that a user wants,” said Jon Roberts, chief innovation officer at Dotdash Meredith. “And if we don’t go about it the right way, all we’re doing is annoying users for our own benefit. That does not end well for the publisher.”  

At the end of the day, it’s a double-edged solution and will involve a lot of tweaking and testing to make it work.

“If you put a reg wall really early, you may get a lot of people registered … but you also bounce 90% of those people. Now you don’t get the ad revenue [at all],” said the first media exec.

What we’ve heard

“People don’t consume culture in neat geographical boundaries. Especially not now … In our old way of working, [the various editions of GQ] were much more incentivized to compete against each other than our actual competition … now in this new way of working, we’re on a Zoom call every Monday with all the editors from Taipei and Mexico City and Paris and Milan and New York. We’re all together, we’re in constant contact and we do these things together.”

– Adam Baidawi, British GQ’s head of editorial content, on the latest episode of the Digiday Podcast.

The Hill’s move to get more reporters on TV

With the U.S. presidential election months away, The Hill is moving into the Washington, D.C. bureau of cable news channel NewsNation to get more of its reporters on TV, produce more video and gain a more national reach.

The move – which includes about 100 employees at The Hill – is planned to take place sometime between April and June, according to a Hill spokesperson. The Hill’s current lease at 1625 K Street in Northwest D.C. ends at the end of June. NewsNation’s parent company, TV network owner Nexstar Media Group, bought The Hill in August 2021 for $130 million. The NewsNation D.C. bureau will also become the home of two local D.C. stations, WDCW and WDVM, this year.

The Hill’s editor-in-chief Bob Cusack said the move consolidates office space and makes it easier for reporters to appear on TV. “It’s just going to be a lot easier to work together. For me, I don’t have to sit – sometimes literally 30 minutes – in traffic just to go half a mile,” Cusack said.

Joe Ruffolo, svp and gm for The Hill and NewsNation Digital, said this means The Hill’s team will have direct access to NewsNation’s upgraded studios. Last April, NewsNation announced a multi-million dollar investment in its studios and talent in Washington, D.C. and New York City, according to Axios.

The improved facilities will also help The Hill with its video expansion goals this year. The Hill launched a new show on Jan. 17 called “What’s America Thinking” that airs on YouTube and Nexstar’s local stations. NewsNation is debuting a new weekend show in March in collaboration with The Hill, in addition to an existing weekday show. The Hill has over 30 million total views on YouTube, three-times as much as the beginning of last year, according to Ruffolo.

Journalists like Congressional reporter Mychael Schnell, White House correspondent Alex Gangitano and national political reporter Julia Manchester make appearances across The Hill’s shows, Nexstar stations and NewsNation, Ruffolo said. When asked what The Hill’s plans were to get reporters on TV more often, he said it’ll be a flexible process depending on the news cycle but could not share more specific details yet. 

Justin Eisenband, managing director of the telecom, media & technology industry group at FTI Consulting, said The Hill’s move is a smart way to amplify the publisher’s talent and reporting and find new distribution channels for coverage, given the significant declines in social media referral traffic. Cusack and Ruffolo declined to share how much money the move is saving the company.  – Sara Guaglione

This story was updated to reflect that NewsNation is producing a new weekend show in collaboration with The Hill.

Numbers to know

8: The number of months that The Messenger existed before reportedly shutting down.

8%: The amount of Business Insider’s staff that was laid off on Thursday. 

8: The number of staffers laid off from TechCrunch this week as a result of the company shuttering its subscription product.

63: The number of minority staffers who were included in the 94 laid-off unionized employees at the Los Angeles Times, calling into question if people of color were disproportionately affected by the layoffs last week. 

What we’ve covered

BuzzFeed, Culture Genesis to combine multicultural ad inventory to sell to advertisers:

  • BuzzFeed has inked a new deal with Culture Genesis that allows the Black-owned and multicultural-targeted media network to package up and sell ads against BuzzFeed’s multicultural content, alongside its own inventory.
  • This deal does bring up the question of whether this means BuzzFeed would get a cut of ad dollars earmarked by agencies for the diversity commitments made since 2020. Would this take money away from Black-owned publishers?

Read more about the deal here and the larger implications around supporting minority-owned media companies here

 Publishers held onto their staff and titles last year, even as traffic fell:

  • Last year was not a great one for publishers’ traffic, it turns out. But even so, many publishers maintained their full-time staff and published titles.
  • Despite traffic decreases, Digiday’s surveys found that the largest percentage of publishers maintained the size of their full-time staff last year.

See more findings from the latest Digiday+ Research report here.

IAB Tech Lab presents Google with Privacy Sandbox gap analysis following Annual Leadership Meeting:

  • The third-party cookie’s demise creates plenty of gaps in how digital ads are bought, sold, served and measured. Google’s Privacy Sandbox plugs some of those gaps, but IAB Tech Lab has identified more that need filling.
  • In total, IAB Tech Lab’s analysis covers more than 40 marketing use cases, but approximately 30 of the cited use cases are not currently supported by Privacy Sandbox.

Read more about the gaps in IAB Tech Lab’s analysis here.  

U.K. publishers and the ICO still grapple with offering a ‘reject all’ cookies option amid revenue concerns: 

  • In November, some of the top publishers by traffic in the U.K. were alerted by the Information Commissioner’s Office that their on-site cookie consent pop-ups were not privacy compliant.
  • The ICO said a “reject all” button is necessary, but the risk of demonetizing upwards of 40% of their audience has prevented publishers from implementing this button thus far.

See how U.K. publishers and the ICO are working together to find a solution here.

Why Twitch’s push to woo publishers is facing challenges in 2024:

  • As Twitch looks to widen its appeal to advertisers, the company is finding itself increasingly hamstrung by its DNA as a platform for individual streamers and creators.
  • Representatives of multiple publishers told Digiday that their Twitch channels had been stymied from the start, feeling the platform never made the adjustments necessary to be an inviting playing ground for publishers and media organizations.

Learn more about why Twitch has moved away from publisher partnerships here.

What we’re reading

January was a bloodbath for many media companies:

Upwards of a dozen mainstream media outlets announced or enacted layoffs last month, which led to a ripple effect in union activity, reported Axios. For example, last week Forbes’ union began a three-day-long walkout on Thursday in protest of union busting, but later that day, the company’s CEO announced that roughly 3% of the company would be laid off.

The clash at the Los Angeles Times’ that led to the top editor’s departure: 

Earlier this month, the LA Times’ top editor Kevin Merida resigned from his role after three years due to a conflict with the publication’s owner, billionaire Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong, over a story Merida was pursuing, The New York Times reported. In December, Soon-Shiong allegedly tried to dissuade Merida from covering a wealthy California doctor whose dog bit someone. 

A second investigation delays ownership transfer of the Telegraph:

The ownership change of the U.K.-based newspaper company that includes the Telegraph and Spectator titles has been delayed due to a second investigation into the recent restructuring of the UAE-backed consortium that’s aiming to acquire the title, according to The Guardian.

The Washington Post’s new CEO shares his leadership outlook:

Just 17 days into the job, WaPo CEO Will Lewis chatted with Semafor about his strategy for revitalizing the news publication that reportedly lost $100 million in 2023 and laid off almost 10% of its staff.  

Digital media darlings Vice and BuzzFeed may start shedding assets: 

The Wall Street Journal reported that Vice Media and BuzzFeed have put two of their brands up for sale. Vice’s lifestyle site Refinery 29 and BuzzFeed’s cooking brand Tasty are both reportedly available for purchase as both parent companies struggle to keep financially afloat.

https://digiday.com/?p=533591

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