Fact is, most sites don’t offer enough immediate value to overcome the inertia (or patience level) of a casual consumer. Except for gaming and pornography sites, the burden of consumer registration for the rest of e-commerce has to be set extremely low if you want to keep customers coming through the front doors.

Faced with the choice of creating mnemonic information or not, it is all too easy for a customer to enter invented information – especially when there is no requirement to verify an account through an email address – or just to walk away and find a site that will usher them in without the hassle. (How many times have you abandoned a promising Website as soon as a screen-full of empty boxes pops up, prompting you to explain, yet again, your life story in data?)

Take a look around: The AOL-like systems that generate a user’s choice – account name plus a random number – encourage promiscuous account creation, and Web content sites find themselves inundated with accounts that use names such as “Betchu Wanna Knowwho.” And even customers who prefer to use a standard email account or similar login often find they are out of luck there, too; there is only one “billg” at any given system that requires registration, even though a billg can exist “@” every domain.

When it comes to collecting user data via registration, the one true religion that online marketers should practice with more discipline is combining the notion of contact information and account name – and ask, or require, customers to use their primary email address as the way in which they identify themselves to you.

Email-based registration has multiple positive impacts on your business. First, you capture an email address every time a user registers. You can use this, if you choose, to confirm the account and verify the address. Or, you increase the likelihood of a valid address by telling users you’re going to send them a coupon for their first order, a free report, or some other goodie.

Second, because people tend to use one email address for specific types of correspondence – using a personal email to handle orders sent from home – you get a more likely count of accounts. Users won’t forget their account when they return, meaning you won’t get the endless stream of “Betchu Wanna Knowwhos.”

Third, because they’re using an email address, you’re more likely to get committed registrants. True, casual users might shy away from providing this information. But given that registration already sets the “entry” bar pretty high, requiring the email address will help weed out less serious users.

And fourth, you reduce the amount of information needed from a user, increasing the likelihood that they will complete the process. You could require an email address separately, but that adds another box, another item to avoid, and another place for a user to fabricate information.

Sites that choose to avoid the email address as account name often suggest technology limitations inherent in their ordering or customer account systems as their motivation, but that is usually a smokescreen deployed by technical folks who think the problem is with the user for not conforming to their technical needs.

The argument tends to blame an off-the-shelf package or an in-house project that uses a particular form of user account to identify customers, and can’t handle email addresses. But for any system with a unique customer identifier, it is possible to create a mediator system that associates the unique external ID (the email address) with the unique internal one (which might be a simple serial number or a length-limited account name).

Bottom line: The registration burden should not be pushed out at the user because, except in rare cases, users always take the path of least resistance. Unlike the local telephone company, which can enforce its “phone number plus extra digits” account codes due to its ongoing domination of the market, a Web company should insulate customers from its systems’ limitations and complexities for its self-interest in keeping that user.

The odd fact about user accounts is that, on the one hand, you need to establish a unique identity in your own systems for customers, but on the other hand, you want that identity to be uniform for the customers themselves. That is, you want them to be able to choose and use an identity that they can provide everywhere they go on the Web. The closer you come to providing that solution, the more likely that a user can either register quickly or without even remembering if they have registered with you before logging back in and becoming that most valued of commodities: a return customer.

Adam