Knowing your readers in a world with privacy regulations

Today publishers are faced with two conflicting tasks: on one hand, they need to know their readers in order to build strong relationships while on the other hand publishers need to comply with increasing privacy regulations. In Europe publishers are faced with GDPR, which became enforceable in May 2018, while in the US, publishers with readers in California need to comply with the California Consumer Privacy Act, which began enforcement earlier this month. No matter the complexities of such privacy regulations, it is important publishers are still working to know their readers and build strong relationships with them. That’s why today we’re digging into how publishers have fared since these regulations came into force, how readers feel about sharing their data, and the growing importance of de-anonymising users.

Limited newspaper data privacy fines but concerns still persist

Two years into GDPR compliance, there have been limited fines levied against newspapers or other media organisations in Europe. In our research, we found a newspaper in Cyprus that was fined €10,000 for publishing the names and photos of police officers involved in an investigation. The Office of the Cyprus Data Protection Commissioner found that the same goal could have been achieved by using only the initials of the names and/or by blurring their faces.

This has not prevented scaremongering, with many newspapers in the US still blocking European readers from accessing content. It is hard to imagine that proponents of GDPR wanted a world in which it would mean the world wide web was no longer world wide. European residents are blocked by a wide array of local news websites, including my hometown newspaper, the Hutchinson Leader.

However, national news organisations are also still blocking European readers. Some, such as Gannett and their wide list of titles, have created special ‘experiences’ for European Union readers, in which they do not collect personally identifiable information or otherwise track readers. Other publishers, such as Los Angeles Times, seem to allow European residents to access only parts of the website. Registering to newsletters is not possible, which means unsubscribing is also impossible. If a reader subscribed while in the US, they would be blocked from changing their newsletter settings while in the European Union. Furthermore, residents of the US can access the homepage and various articles, but cannot read the ePaper.

Some American newspapers who first blocked access to European readers have since opened back up, including Dallas Morning News and Chicago Tribune. Others such as New York Daily News and Newsday are still completely blocked.

Of more concern is the way GDPR has been used to muzzle some journalists, as new research has found evidence of in Slovakia, Hungary, and Romania. For example, in Slovakia the data protection authority proposed a possible fine of €10 million against a Czech investigative outlet called Investigace.cz unless they revealed their anonymous sources. Similarly, Romania’s data protection authority previously threatened a €20 million fine unless journalists revealed their sources. Revealing sources is a clear violation of basic journalism ethics, so perhaps it is time for GDPR proponents to explain if this was their intention with the regulation and take steps to prevent such abuse.

Readers willing to share data for better user experience, not targeted ads

Earlier this year, Digital Content Next conducted a survey of US adults to understand their expectations of online privacy and how their data is used. The clear takeaway is that readers expect news organisations to use their personal data to provide a better user experience, not to serve targeted ads. The majority of respondents agreed that data should be collected in order to:

  • 59%: protect from fraud
  • 55%: improve the website overall
  • 54%: identify subscription status when logging in
  • 49%: offer a personalised experience

Only 32% agreed data should be collected in order to share with outside vendors to deliver targeted ads. Likely this number will only continue to decrease as Apple users adopt iOS 14 which will display permission popups when apps want to use tailored ads.

These survey results are from the US as a whole, while the new regulation only applies to Californian residents. It would be interesting to see how a similar survey would look in Europe, where residents across the whole union have had a few more years of awareness surrounding the usage of data and privacy.

Publishers should ensure they are meeting the expectations of readers by offering personalised experiences if they are collecting reader data. To accurately personalise though, publishers need to solve two issues: ensuring accurate data gathering and anonymous users.

Luckily the path has been paved by Netflix: their family accounts strategies has done wonders for increasing the general population’s tolerance, or even desire, for giving accurate data for better personalisation. Other tech giants have played a role in the mainstream acceptance of personalisation as well. For example YouTube allows users to “unwatch” a video by deleting it from their history and thus removing the impact it has on the recommendation system.

Importance of de-anonymising readers

Once publishers improve the data they collect from their subscribers, there is still the issue of the wide number of anonymous users and how to best personalise their experience. While cookies can be used, this does not work to stitch together the various ways readers access content: the publisher doesn’t know that it is the same user on phone and desktop. That’s why registration walls are becoming more popular with publishers across the US and Europe. While The New York Times made news when it enacted a registration wall last year, at our webinar last week we discussed how Ouest-France’s L’Edition du Soir has long had a regi-wall for their digital edition (a product that is mistakenly often walled off entirely to non-subscribers).

With the future looking to be a world without third-party cookies, the ability to gather data directly from users will be increasingly important. Of course, registration walls also improve the publisher’s ability to market subscription offerings. Piano’s research found that the average conversion rate of registered users is 10x that of anonymous users.

In the UK, The Telegraph has found success with a premium tier of its paywall: this content requires users to give their email address to view one premium article each week. This has helped more than triple their daily subscriber acquisition numbers.

Registration walls can also help to ultimately reduce subscription friction down the line. This also ties into the importance of ‘incremental commitment’: it is psychologically easier to give a credit card number if you have already given an email address a while ago.

The ask of personal information is lower than the ask of dollars.

Michael Silberman, SVP of strategy at Piano

No matter the region, the trend is towards more data privacy regulation, not less. Publishers will need to adapt to these changing circumstances and make sure they are using the data they receive for good. This will help them to build strong relationships with their readers amongst the complexities of data privacy regulations.

Mary-Katharine Phillips
Mary-Katharine Phillips
Media innovation analyst @ Twipe
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