11 April 2010

Don’t Make Me Register

You’ve worked hard to create your open data catalog and you’ve spent endless hours and resources creating the data that you are making available.  You want to make sure your data is used appropriately and you want to be able to protect your intellectual property.   You decide you want to put up a registration page so you can track who is downloading what data and how often they do so.  That way, you’re covered.  Sounds like a good strategy, right?  Wrong.

When you make registration mandatory people leave your site.

Here’s why:

When people are presented with an e-mail address form to access content the first question they are likely to ask themselves is, “why do you need this?”  Some sites will offer some sort of reasoning, like, “so we can keep you informed”, but then the person wonders, if that’s true, why is it mandatory?   What if I don’t want you to keep me informed?  It’s clearly not the real reason.  Strike one. You have just lost some trust with this person.

People are used to being lied to, so some will press on.  They know you don’t need their e-mail address but you are insisting on it anyway, so, the next logical question is: “What are you going to do with it?”.  A number of reasons come to mind but the one that will often come up first is you want to send them spam, or worse, you want to sell their email address to others who will send them spam.  So, now the person is faced with another decision:  “Should I use my real email address or should I use the one I reserve for sites that I don’t want to get spam from, or should I go to hotmail and make a new one for this site?”

If they manage to stay interested in your site for this long and go through with the e-mail registration, then at least you know they are highly motivated to get at your content.  If that’s your goal, to attract only highly motivated people (unfortunately this includes vandals) and eliminate the rest, then putting up a registration form might not be a bad way to go.

But there is a group of people in the middle, between the highly motivated people and the people who will never use your stuff.  This group in the middle live in an area called The Long Tail.  Promoting the generation of value from content like open data is all about The Long Tail, and if you want the people in the middle to participate and create value for you, you want to make their participation as easy as possible, so your population of users is as large as possible making the long tail as long as possible.

In the middle are the people who are motivated enough to check your site out and maybe even create something cool but who aren’t willing to potentially compromise their email address to do so.  By making them jump through hoops without a valid reason you are destroying trust at the very beginning of the relationship and potentially turning them away.

Using the word “mashup” gives the work a kind of fun sound, like it’s easy.  It’s not.  And currently, there are relatively few people who can take your data, combine it with some more data or perhaps some code, and make something truly valuable.  I am not saying you have to cater to these people, but if you really want them to choose your site to spend their time on, consider making it as easy as possible for them.

If your goal is to foster citizen engagement and to provide ways for people to contribute and maybe even crowd-source your data to produce a valuable outcome you should be looking to make the process as easy as possible and keep that tail as long as possible.  Requiring users to register themselves to download your data tells them that you value their e-mail address more than you value their contribution which, if true, means you might want to rethink your strategy.  There are easier ways to get people’s email addresses.

And if you have functionality that actually is valuable to the user, and requires people to sign in, consider a friendlier alternative like OpenID.

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