Digital publishing 101: Anything that delays access to content increases the chances of readers leaving the site.
Now that more and more publishers are erecting paywalls to drive reader revenues, making content access smooth is critical for converting registered users and retaining subscribers.
Publishers are trying to find the right balance between restricting access and making it harder for current and prospective subscribers who are considering it. They don’t want to add too much friction and are wary of tactics that get in the way of that.Michael Silberman, SVP of Strategy at paywall tech provider Piano
“Run-of-the-mill log-in issues that affect every site with a paywall”
Last year, New Yorker faced considerable heat from its subscribers who were having trouble staying logged in, or even being recognized as subscribers.
The issue became big enough for Neiman Lab’s Deputy Editor Laura Hazard Owen (who was also affected by it), to get in touch with New Yorker’s Editor Michael Luo and write an in-depth piece on it earlier this year.
The reasons ranged from specific bugs to the complexities associated with the paywall itself. At one point a bug affected article pages that were getting heavy traffic. The issue was solved but the publisher continued to grapple with what was described as “normal, run-of-the-mill log-in issues of the type that affect every site with a paywall.”
New Yorker’s representative told Slate, “An ongoing issue that we are seeing—as are other publishers—are users who toggle between different devices (phone, desktop, laptop), browsers (mobile, Twitter, Facebook), and apps, where cookies are not transferable.
“Each of these environments needs the user to log in. Additionally, articles accessed via AMP, Google’s accelerated mobile page, do not retain log-in information. So, for instance, you could land on an AMP page after you click a New Yorker link via Twitter or Facebook and be asked to log in again. These issues are not specific to The New Yorker.”
“Important to reduce friction in the subscription process”
Some publishers have found that removing friction between reader and content has led to positive gains.
Mary-Katharine Phillips, Media Innovation Analyst at Twipe wrote in a recent article, “We know it is important to reduce friction in the subscription process—The Seattle Times saw a 35% increase in conversions when it reduced the fields required to subscribe from 24 to just 9.
“But a frictionless experience is also needed for the reading experience as a subscriber. This means investing in your technical products, and making sure subscribers do not need to continuously log-in again.”
UK’s The Times of London has a hard paywall that requires readers to enter details to access any content. Its Managing Director, Chris Duncan told Digiday that they were concerned about user experience and the process of authentication.
I suspect the greater challenge that may face the industry as more people move to subscriptions is how we keep making it easy for subscribers to access the content they have paid for without continually having to provide authentication details.Chris Duncan, Managing Director, The Times of London
“Making it easy for subscribers to access content”
A recent technological development that aims to do away with passwords may help publishers reduce friction in authentication for their registered users/subscribers. Earlier this year, the Worldwide Web Consortium and the FIDO Alliance announced Web Authentication or WebAuthn as an official web standard.
WebAuthn is a login format that replaces passwords with authentication through biometrics, like fingerprints or facial recognition, or through security keys. These security keys can include smartphones and smartwatches.
WebAuthn is already supported by most popular browsers including Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and Edge. The official approval will now pave the way for websites to integrate it as a login option.
What this means is that this technology would enable users to login to websites simply by authenticating through their phone or personal computer. There would be no need to go through the process of entering login information.
A reader wanting to log in to a news site on his laptop may simply pair it with his smartphone via Bluetooth to receive an authentication prompt on his phone. He can then login by authorizing through face or fingerprint recognition or entering a PIN on his mobile.
Google recently announced that all Android devices running on version 7.0 and higher are now FIDO2 certified for password-free logins. While Apple has not yet embraced the open industry standard yet, there are signs that it may also be considering doing away with passwords. Currently, it allows users to login to the Mac through Apple Watch—there are rumors that the functionality would be expanded in future.
Intuitive login process
In fact, Apple has a very intuitive login process, Mac computers can sense when its Apple Watch-wearing owner is nearby and logs them in automatically.
Imagine something similar happening with website logins in future? A subscriber, for example, accessing The New York Times on his mobile, does not ever have to enter login info because authentication is automatically provided by his mobile. And when he accesses the website through a laptop all he has to do is perhaps tap on the fingerprint sensor to get going.
The paid content business is an ecosystem, even if you have the best content it needs to be easy to use.Katarina Ellemark, Product Manager at Swedish media group MittMedia
The way it stands, publishers adopting the WebAuthn standard for their websites would remove a persistent source of friction for their users. With smartphone adoption growing rapidly, subscribers will be able to seamlessly access websites whether they are redirected from an email newsletter to their phone’s native browser, or coming from a link shared through a text messaging app. “Run-of-the-mill login issues” like the one faced by New Yorker’s subscribers may well become a thing of past.