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The Guardian rolls out global tests of its registration wall

News publisher the Guardian has ramped up tests of its registration wall to its global audience, with growing numbers of readers having reported spotting it over the past few weeks.

The tests were initially announced at the end of December 2019 in a post by Chief Product Officer Caspar Llewellyn Smith. At the time, the Guardian said that the “reaction to these tests will help to inform how we proceed,” and emphasised that the registration wall was part of a series of tests that represented the publisher’s “ongoing strategy to develop a deeper set of relationships with our readers”.

But recently, the Guardian has extended its testing to their global audience. A number of sightings were reported in early April, with a growing number in the UK this past weekend.

This is not a hard registration wall like the one introduced by the New York Times last summer. Users who hit the Guardian’s registration wall are given the option to register for free, sign in if they have an existing account or have contributed in the past, or dismiss the registration wall with a ‘Not Now’ button (if you notice it!). 

However, in a post explaining the rationale for the extension, Llewellyn Smith emphasised that “This is not a paywall, nor a step to one.”

“Guardian journalism is free for everyone to read on our website,” he wrote. “We have long chosen not to put up a paywall because we believe everyone should have access to fair and factual reporting. This will not change – and it’s especially important in the face of a global pandemic.”

Transparency in registration

Of particular interest is the wording the Guardian has chosen for the tests that we have seen. There is an unsurprising emphasis on the fact that the journalism is free, but the publisher has also put a paragraph explaining why they are asking readers to register.

“Registering lets us understand you better,” the box reads. “This means that we can build better products and start to personalise the adverts you see so we can charge more from advertisers in future.”

This is an unusual level of transparency, particularly being so explicit about being able to charge advertisers more in future. In Llewellyn Smith’s post, this point is emphasised again, with an explanation about how readers can adjust their own privacy settings to turn off the personalisation element.

Registration walls are becoming an increasingly important way for publishers to gather vital information about their readers ahead of third party cookies being phased out. Ad blocking has also caused issues in this respect, with publishers often having no data on more than 40% of their audience, which in turn makes selling ads difficult. 

This ‘first party data’ is much more valuable to publishers as they can get a far more clear and reliable idea of their audience, as well as having vital contact details for follow-up and engagement.

The Guardian has released no data yet about how the registration wall or the explanation for it has performed, but it is likely we’ll see many iterations of it as they work out what gets the best response. Their infamous ‘Support the Guardian’ donation request banner has been widely tested since it was introduced in 2015.

In the short term, it looks like the option to dismiss the registration wall will remain. But as pressure on media business models grows, it’s possible that the Guardian would turn towards a New York Times-style compulsory registration. In that case, they would have to work very hard to reiterate to readers that assurance that it is not a step towards a paywall.

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