July 20, 2004
REGISTRATION: Should You Lose the Log-in?
One big question for educators who post free content on their site is whether or not to require users to register and log in to the site in order to access the content.
You can make a very good case for requiring login in exchange for access to free content....For example, for newspapers and other reputable for-profit enterprises, information gathered this way is generally used to target advertising or services to users or to compile marketing data. For nonprofit and educational organizations, it's often used for evaluation and reporting purposes.
But while an exchange of personal data for free content seems like a fair deal to some users, to others it's an invasion of privacy and an invitation for increased email spam.
The latter position often leads users to submit phony information and email addresses - or increasingly, as reported in this Wired News article, to turn to services such as bugmenot.com, which provides username and passwords for popular sites that require registration, or to use email addresses from sites like Mailinator or spamgourmet, which allow users to create single-use email accounts.
I don't give out my own email address or personal information unless I trust the site not to spam me and have a pretty good reason to believe I'll become a regular site user... instead I register using a few free email accounts I use only for this purpose and a fake name and address (which, like most of the addresses on Law & Order, would land you somewhere in the middle of the East River). While the ethics of giving out incorrect personal information might be questionable, based on the volume of spam in my free mail accounts, this has been a wise decision.
Required registration is an annoyance that most users would prefer to avoid, and some have reported that as many as 75% of Internet users have left a site at one point or another to avoid site registration.
However, as foundations and other funders increasingly require organizations to provide hard data and demographics, developers who need to collect information as part of a grant or to justify the expenditure of organizational resources on online distribution may feel that they have few other options for gathering information about who's really using their educational materials.
Log analysis can provide only limited information about users, and users rarely fill out surveys and other online requests for information when they are not required - for example, one very well-known and respected nonprofit organization I worked with didn't want to compel registration and went so far as to offer to send a gift to any users who filled out a survey during an evaluation of their free educational materials (at potentially considerable cost), but they still received only a tiny response.
(Of course, if many users are regularly providing false information, then much of what you collect is likely to be useless, and by requiring registration you might just be turning away some users and annoying others for no good reason.)
In general, I believe that site registration should be avoided if possible, but if you must require registration, keep the following tips in mind:
- Make it worthwhile. Make sure you are giving users something of value by registering - such as access to a community of users, customization, or other special services - and let users know in advance what they'll gain through registration.
- Explain why you're doing it. Let users know what you'll use their information for, reassure them that you won't spam them, and make sure you have a privacy statement users can review.
- Keep your survey form short. Users won't generally fill out long surveys, so ask for as little information as possible, and keep required fields to an absolute minimum. Avoid asking for information that might seem too personal