Media Briefing: Publishers’ audience authentication strategies are put to the test

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 →

Incremental authentication

Publishers are seeing how much more valuable authenticated audiences are compared to random passersby visiting their sites. But with authenticated users representing a minority of the traffic, publishers are under pressure to persuade more of their site visitors to submit their emails, which can be appended to third-party cookie-replacing deterministic IDs like The Trade Desk’s Unified ID 2.0 and LiveRamp’s RampID. 

For Unwind Media – a casual gaming company that owns two online Solitaire sites – authenticated users generated 42% more revenue programmatically than non-authenticated users, and the lift was 90% in cookieless environments like Apple’s Safari browser, according to svp of programmatic revenue and strategy Emry DowningHall. 

However, authenticated users only account for 24% of Unwind Media’s online traffic, as of April, a decent uptick from 19% in January. Darshan Somashekar, co-founder and head of product at the casual gaming company, said the hope is to get that number up to 30% by the end of 2024 and 40% by the end of 2025.

Other publishers, including Gannett, Snopes and TV Tropes are similarly trying to grow their proportion of this valuable yet elusive authenticated audience. However, attempting too aggressively to increase that share – compelling users to log in without providing sufficient incentive, for example – can backfire on a publisher.

Publishers “have to be really careful. If you’re too aggressive with your login requirements, you’ll actually send a lot of people away,” said Jeff Burkett, vp of ad innovations at Gannett. Presently, the average amount of logged in, authenticated users within Gannett’s portfolio sits at about 20%, which equates to about 27 million of the USA Today Network’s more than 135 million monthly unique visitors.

Justin Wohl, CRO of Snopes and TV Tropes, is aiming to get to 10% authenticated users this year. “At times, I think I’ve said I want to see 15%, but I’m being realistic and not being pushed to be any more aggressive with my team,” he said. 

Incentivizing sign-ups

Hard registration walls that demand users fork over their emails before accessing content are losing steam with publishers – and particularly their audiences – when it comes to trying to increase their cohorts of authenticated users. 

For Unwind Media, Somashekar said that previous tests that issued a hard registration wall after users played between 10-20 games increased the bounce rate of users — although it also led to a “significant increase of registrations.” Upwards of 20% of the company’s page views were lost once users hit the reg wall and, despite the higher conversion rate, ultimately his team faced a loss.

Even with the newly registered users being sold at a higher CPM to advertisers, the revenue lost from the 20% decline in pageviews led to an overall revenue decline of approximately 15%, Somashekar said. 

Instead, promoting benefits that registered users have, like saved scores and comparing scores to averages, are the focus for Unwind’s efforts to increase authentication rates this year, Somashekar said. One newer offering this year is a pop-up window that displays after a non-logged-in player finishes a game, reminding them that if they sign in, their stats will be saved. That reminder led to a 20% increase in registration, he said. 

Asking vs. demanding

Gannett’s goal this year is also to ask for, rather than demand, users’ emails, be it through newsletter sign-ups or engaging directly on-site with quick survey questions. Kelly Andresen, president of national sales at Gannett, said that the company created a cross-departmental task force this year consisting of employees from advertising, consumer marketing, editorial and product — in an effort to strike the right balance.

One of the ways Gannett is driving logins and growing first-party data from this cohort is its micro-surveying strategy, in which logged-in users are asked up to six questions that show up in display ad units on the site. Since launching in January 2022, engagement with a micro-survey tends to have six times the amount of interaction than an ad placed in the same unit, Burkett said, thus justifying the pay off of swapping a sellable ad for the chance to authenticate a user and collect first-party data. What’s more, about 75% of the respondents answer more than one question at a time, he said.

It all goes back to the “idea of inviting people to engage with [answering] some questions instead of saying, ‘You have to answer a few questions to continue to do whatever you wanted to do with us,’” said Andresen.

Snopes’ Wohl said that his team is focusing on building out more products that will appeal to audiences enough to share their email or register for an account. These products include a larger newsletter suite (more on that below), trivia games that users have to sign-in to play and an AI-powered chatbot that registered users can access. 

Tested in beta in Q1, Snopes’s trivia game generated just under 10,000 registrations, Wohl said, but it was fun enough that the users continued to come back and play multiple times. Wohl’s team is building out a full-fledged game that will go live later this month. 

Beyond that, Wohl said that appealing to users with the age-old callout that “free accounts support our journalism,” on the site masthead has generated a few thousand sign ups as well. 

Easier sign-ins 

Allowing audiences to sign in via platform accounts, such as Apple, Facebook and Google’s single sign-on features, are also driving incremental lift in authentication for some publishers.   

One publisher who spoke anonymously during a town hall at the Digiday Publishing Summit last month said, “Single sign-on providers, depending on the traffic channel, help out. So if they’re coming from Facebook or Instagram, having the Facebook single sign on will increase conversions.” 

Somashekar said that The Trade Desk’s OpenPass, which offers a cleaner log-in experience for users that doesn’t require email, username and password, has shown a positive uptick in registrations too. Still working to fully implement OpenPass, he said that they’re pacing for upwards of a 40% lift in registrations because of this offering. 

Wohl’s team is also testing OpenPass, as well as other single-sign on options from Facebook, Google and Apple. Right now, each lifts authentication rates by only about 0.5%, but those add up for publishers trying to meet that 10% threshold. 

“It’s not trivial to add these things to your site,” said Wohl. “I think publishers need to both offer the optionality and make it as easy as humanly possible for people to complete that authentication step.” 

What we’ve heard

“I feel a lot of tailwinds in what we’re doing. When we launched in October 2022, our team really went to market in the second half of 2022, and then into 2023 … Some of the conversations that we had, we got a lot of ‘let’s wait and see. We’re not planning, we’re paused.’ … Now that we’re into 2024, I have felt a recalibration there and a big appetite to engage.” 

Rachel Oppenheim, CRO of Semafor during an on-stage fireside chat at the Digiday Publishing Summit in Vail, Colo. 

Publishers are revamping their newsletter offerings

What’s old is new again when it comes to publishers betting on newsletters. While the challenges to referral traffic are making it difficult for publishers to grow readership, newsletters can help ensure that people keep coming back.

The Guardian is building more U.S. newsletter products to engage one-off visits from users that come from other platforms like Facebook or Google, said Tom Johnson, head of audience development at the Guardian U.S. So far, the publisher has launched about a half dozen newsletters and emailed columns in the past year, all of which have “surpassed internal growth expectations,” he said. 

The total number of global subscribers to the Guardian’s U.S.-produced newsletters have grown by about 680,000 in the past 12 months, according to Johnson. He declined to share the total subscriber count. 

A big goal is to move sign-ups from short-term products like the “Reclaim Your Brain” five-week email course to longer-term offerings such as the recurring “Well Actually” newsletter. Johnson said his team does not yet have conclusive data on how many people moved from “Reclaim Your Brain” to “Well Actually.” But “Reclaim Your Brain,” which debuted at the beginning of 2024, counts more than 146,000 global subscribers and “Well Actually,” which launched March 7, has more than 30,000.

“Having a robust newsletter offering is a way to shore up your recurring traffic to keep visitors coming back,” said Snopes/TV Tropes’ Wohl. He added that Snopes is revamping its suite of newsletters in the next three months and doubling its offerings to about a half dozen.

Sarah Marshall, Condé Nast’s vp of audience strategy, said the publisher has “overhauled” its newsletter strategy in the last year. A version of The New Yorker’s “Best Books of 2023” was formatted to be consumed specifically within inboxes and was sent to subscribers for the first time in December.

Marshall explained that those kinds of email-specific offerings could help to reduce churn by making subscribers feel valued, and Condé Nast is looking for more opportunities within inboxes to keep paying members consuming content made for them. – Sara Guaglione

Numbers to know

2: The number of print issues of Nylon magazine that are set to be published each year after BDG announced it was bringing back the magazine this year for the first time since 2017.

20-25: The number of hotels that will carry the legacy publisher Field & Stream’s name in a new brand licensing initiative.  

44%: The portion of publisher professionals who told Digiday in Q1 2024 that they don’t earn any revenue from subscriptions — up significantly from the 26% who said the same six months ago.

32,000: The number of free and paid subscribers to Substack newsletter Artelligence, which was acquired by Puck this week.

What we’ve covered

Publishers turn to other platforms to address platform referral traffic issues:

  • Nine digital publishing execs said they are investing in other social platforms like Instagram and TikTok to grow their reach. 
  • But the question remains if alternative platforms can actually make up the deficit of traffic referrals from social platforms like Facebook and Twitter.

Read more about how publishers are looking to other – still vulnerable – social platforms here.

How publishers are optimizing revenue streams:

  • Publishers are placing their bets on both traditional and alternative revenue streams in 2024.
  • But direct-sold display ads have remained a top revenue driver for publishers throughout 2023 – and have been the top revenue stream for publishers since 2020.

See the latest report from Digiday+ Research on publishers’ revenue strategies here.

What BuzzFeed’s CEO really means about pivoting the business to be an AI media and tech company: 

  • BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti published his annual letter to shareholders Monday afternoon, outlining his vision to turn the flagship BuzzFeed publication into an AI-driven technology and media company.
  • The “pivot to AI” may be the new “pivot to video” of years’ past (which wasn’t a great strategy for most, to put it kindly).

Learn more about what Peretti’s pivot to AI means here

Publishers share their top challenges during the Digiday Publishing Summit:

  • A highlight of Digiday’s summit events is the challenge board, to which attendees post the biggest obstacles their businesses face at the moment. 
  • During this spring’s Digiday Publishing Summit in Vail, Colorado, publishers filled the challenge board with a whole host of issues that ranged from traffic troubles to AI anxiety.

Check out our video coverage from the latest Digiday Publishing Summit here.

Publishers give on-site search a long-needed upgrade in the form of AI chatbots:

  • Publishers are testing generative AI technology to update a rather boring function on their sites that hasn’t been updated in a while: search.
  • Beyond improving the functionality of on-site search, nine publishers said the goals behind these initiatives are to improve reader engagement, provide answers to readers’ queries using a publisher’s own archive of content and — in some cases — create an added value for paying subscribers.

Learn more about how publishers are testing AI search functions on their sites here.

What we’re reading

Forbes was found placing ads on a copycat site with a fraction of the audience:

According to The Wall Street Journal, Forbes had been operating a copycat subdomain (www3.forbes.com) where each article page was loaded with dozens of ad spots, seemingly without advertisers’ knowledge. Typically, articles on Forbes’ main domain (www.Forbes.com) only have seven or eight ad spots depending on the article length. 

Fortune promotes its chief strategy and financial officer to CEO:

Anastasia Nyrkovskaya was named chief executive of Fortune this week, making her the first-ever woman to run the company, according to The New York Times. Nyrkovskaya has served as the chief financial officer and chief strategy officer of the business publication since 2019 and is taking over for Alan Murray, who announced in October he was planning to step down from the role after 10 years at the helm. 

X’s AI chatbot is publishing and pushing fake news: 

Last week, a headline reading “Iran Strikes Tel Aviv with Heavy Missiles” was published on the main feed of X, formerly Twitter — the problem is, the attack never happened. According to a report by Mashable, the fake headline was created by Grok, X’s AI chatbot, and was promoted by the platform’s trending news product, Explore.

U.S. lawmakers propose expanded online privacy protections: 

A new bipartisan agreement is a milestone in the congressional data privacy regulation debate, according to The Washington Post. The proposal would allow consumers to have the right to more control over how Google, Meta, TikTok and other tech companies use their personal data. 

Vendors’ made-for-advertising blocking tools pose threat to publishers: 

According to a report by Adweek, some ‘legitimate’ publishers are being wrongly blocked by advertisers within SSPs because of new MFA blockers created by verification firms like DoubleVerify and Integral Ad Science. 

https://digiday.com/?p=540690

More in Media

Inside The New York Times’ plans to correlate attention levels to other metrics

There’s a lot of buzz around attention advertising right now, but The New York Times is trying to stay grounded even as it develops its own plans.

Why publishers are preparing to federate their sites

The Verge and 404 Media are exploring the fediverse as a way to take more control over their referral traffic and onsite audience engagement.

Why publishers fear traffic, ad declines from Google’s AI-generated search results

Some publishers and partners hope for more transparency from Google and other AI companies related to AI-generated search.