To wall, or not to wall — the user sign up question

by Jason Costa

It’s an age old question for companies: when a user hits a site for the first time, do you throw up a registration wall, or do you expose the value freely to a user and let her decide if she’d like to sign up on her own? It’s a hard question, because if you have unique and differentiated content on your site — it should hardly ever be free. I get asked about this by startups frequently.

There are tradeoffs to be thought through before putting up a registration wall. It’s important to be deliberate about what you want, and evaluate the pros and cons of forcing a user transition from unauth’ed to a (hopefully) engaged account holder. This post is meant to consider these tradeoffs, and evaluate other gradients along the registration spectrum.

To build a wall or not?

There’s both a mathematical and a philosophical question here. On the mathematical front, the question becomes: will the service obtain more engaged users with a wall than without? We will touch on this further down in the post.

But there’s also an important philosophical product question: how much more value can the service provide to a user if she registers for an account, that can’t be provided if she doesn’t? There’s a spectrum, and if the delta between having an account or not is small, it will be a struggle to get users to sign up.

On the “registration not required” end of the spectrum, let’s take a look at any travel search engine out there, such as Kayak or Expedia. The value to any user visiting is in comparing prices and options with a set of fixed parameters (location, timing, etc.). Any additional value in registering is out at the periphery, and simply doesn’t require having an account.

On the “registration required” end, let’s examine messaging and social apps: Facebook, WhatsApp, Snapchat, etc. These services have little utility without an account. A user must be able to find their friends and communicate with them, which is magic that can only happen after signing up. The biggest challenge for startups on this end of the spectrum is that, outside of social, it’s incredibly difficult to communicate to a user *why* they need to sign up.

How to build the Wall

A wall must speak to the user value prop…

When I first joined Twitter, everything on the web client was publicly available for consumption by default. Twitter originally introduced the sign up wall in order to capture more of the millions of visitors coming to the site every month. Capturing their data gave the service far more ad targeting options (amongst other things like personalization, etc.) and ultimately lifted the value of these new account holders. It’s far harder to monetize anonymous visitors to your site.

There were hurdles with the Twitter sign up right off the bat. For instance, the random images like this one of people playing Cricket somewhere in South Asia. It’s a fantastic photo, but it captures a moment that didn’t necessarily resonate with most folks outside of South Asia where Cricket is most popular. More importantly though — what did this have to do with Twitter?

Furthermore, there were generic shots like the one below. Again, a gorgeous shot of a city landscape — but not one that visually represented the user value proposition of Twitter. Why not instead show a photo of the plane landing in the Hudson River with the Tweet as the caption, or one of the many other iconic images (Arab Spring, etc.) associated with the Twitter brand?

Focus on engaged users, not sign-ups

I often hear startups talking about the use of a sign-up wall for the purpose of optimizing registrations. But this is a dangerous premise to start from. Ultimately you want users to have a great first impression of your site, and leave with a solid initial understanding of your service. These are things that lead to long term engagement.

There’s a cost to focusing on registration, and it’s a very hard cost to quantify. When a company optimizes for sign ups, and only sign ups — the majority of users who don’t activate and engage inevitably walk away from that service with a poor impression and understanding. They churn out after minutes or even seconds. Many others will simply just abandon the service and bounce on landing: some of these folks will also vocalize their displeasure. Here’s an example of that happening with the Pinterest sign up wall.

And it gets worse. There’s a real risk that you’ve definitively lost these people after they’ve had such a poor first impression. Once you’ve churned a user out after a negative experience, it becomes exponentially harder to re-acquire them a second, third, and fourth time. You can burn through your potential market quickly, and eventually growth can tap out. Here’s an example of Quora suffering from the same sentiment.

Acknowledge the SEO dependency

Most startups don’t have unlimited budget to spend on performance marketing to drive growth, and SEO remains far and away the most effective channel for organic user acquisition. That means most sites and apps are still leaning heavily on Google for growth.

When an unauth’ed user hits a site from Google, and is prevented from exploring: inevitably the referring search engine will see an increase in bounce rates and likely lower repeat click through rates. Google takes this as a signal that they should be sending less traffic to this site in the future, which can cripple growth opportunities. Ideally, a site wants to send signals of lower bounce rates / longer session lengths, and more return visitors — which can be achieved by *not* putting up a registration wall. Furthermore, opening up content enables a service far more control over product positioning to unauth’ed users, enabling better comprehension of service.

Wall placement & a window for engagement

Now, I’m not saying that it’s bad to have a user sign-up wall. If done well it can (obviously) increase the sign-up conversion rate dramatically, certainly in the short term. But throwing one up without being thoughtful about it can lead to growth pains over the mid to long term.

Here are a few potential avenues that can be explored for procuring registrations, in a way that can potentially better facilitate a user’s ability to comprehend the service.

  • Throw up the user wall after ~60 seconds of browsing
  • Display a soft sign-up wall, that a user can easily close out, on each visit
  • Require sign up only after a create or edit event happens
  • Insert a partial interstitial on the mobile site prompting app download
  • Upon a direct tap/click event, redirect to the app store download page (if you do this: tell the user what you’re about to do with a popup!!)
  • Collect bare minimum info first (name, email, etc.), flesh the profile out later (Android allows access to some of these fields by default, iOS not so much…)

But know that if you do pursue alternatives to the sign-up wall, you’re bound to see a decrease in user registrations. And that might be OK: because the users that you are procuring are more likely to be engaged and retained as they have a better understanding of the service pre sign-up — albeit a smaller user base. There’s not a right or wrong answer here, but there are many things to consider when evaluating how to reveal your content to unauth’ed users and whether or not you want to put up a sign-up wall. If you’re honest about the core value of the service you’re providing to users, it will be easier to find the right wall placement. Place it too early or too late, or ask for too much data from users, then you’re leaving growth on the table.

We’d love to hear the community’s opinion on this, and other tactics you’ve taken toward solving the registration hurdle, in the comments!

Jason Costa is an EIR at GGV Capital. This post is part of an ongoing series aimed at exploring topics such as consumer product development, platform analysis, and strategy.