Why identity should matter to digital publishers

One of the biggest problems digital publishers face is they don’t know enough about their users to compete against the growing ad targeting capabilities of Google, Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin etc, all of which have extensive user information.

Some publishers have countered this by building paywalls, but of course this hugely impacts on volume, so any data obtained is not really significant (with a few honourable exceptions e.g. FT, WSJ, and perhaps the NYT, though their digital ad revenue isn’t great from what I’ve heard).

Most digital publishers have kept their content free and simply invited users to register in order to participate with comments, however very few publishers seem to have done this effectively with a long-term strategy in mind.

You can register with most newspapers in seconds using minimal and even fake information (e.g. the Daily Mail) or even via a third party commenting apps like Disqus (e.g. the Telegraph). Many publishers are even actively encouraging their users to have conversations about their content on third party sites like Facebook or Twitter, instead of their own.

Why aren’t premium publishers doing more to ensure people want to participate on their sites using genuine profile information that will both add value to their own experience and add value to advertisers?

Here are some of the things I think publishers could do better:

Incentivise users to register a profile using real information:

  • Require a valid email address (most already do this, but incredibly some don’t)
  • Tie user registrations in the publisher’s key markets to a competition entry (which requires a postal address) – OK it’s a little naff, but it works
  • Require users to use their real name (as Facebook does, and state fake users may be removed) as it encourages far more positive, in-depth and constructive discussions (TechCrunch switched from allowing anonymous comments to using Facebook comments, and the quality of comments improved dramatically overnight as people’s opinions were in most cases tied to a real identity and therefore a real reputation). Although some people would refuse or be unable to comment using their real name on certain issues, it is almost certainly the case that many other people do not currently participate in discussions dominated by extreme and offensive opinions left by trolls. Even some journalists are starting to hold back for fear of being ridiculed by users, not to mention the fact poor quality comments make for a bad environment for advertisers. Perhaps a compromise would be to allow anonymous posting of comments via a special approved registration where the user has to provide an explanation to the publisher (e.g. I work in an occupation where I can’t provide public criticism), and to enable other users to hide these anonymous posts if desired
  • Enable users to link their profile to their other digital identities e.g. Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, Pinterest, personal or business website to add a sense of ownership to the profile
  • Create a club feel by offering a package of benefits for registering e.g. discounts from chosen partners and in-house services e.g. print delivery, paid dating services, relevant free product samples (requires home address)

Incentivise users to participate on an ongoing basis:

  • Make it easy for users to stay logged in with simple login process (visible on the homepage) and password requirements, and a persistent cookie so you’re usually already logged in, and if you aren’t it’s super easy to do so
  • Create a simple rewards system to encourage loyalty and quality so users can like or rate other people’s comments. People that achieve a threshold of positive ratings should get a ‘Top Commentator’ status like Facebook comments
  • Encourage civility – make it clear that users who are offensive will be warned and ultimately banned, and make it easy for users to report offensive commentators to a moderator
  • Incentivise people to complete and maintain their profiles (including interests) with a simple completion status bar (e.g. 90% complete) like LinkedIn
  • Nurture users with a weekly opt-in email update about the most active discussions taking place on the site, ideally tailored to the user e.g. if I most often comment in the Media section I should be sent an optional email with the most active Media discussions (like Quora)
  • Be transparent about why data about interests is collected – “By completing your status with the things that interest you other people will be able to learn more about you, and we will be able to display content and ads that are more likely to be of interest to you.”

Premium publishers are uniquely placed to cultivate communities. There’s so much more they could do.

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Why identity should matter to digital publishers