News website producers, wouldn’t it be great if visiting your organization's website became an automatic, ingrained, rewarding habit your audience engaged in as part of their normal daily routine? This may sound like I am risking boiling down the online news audience to little more than Pavlov’s dogs made famous from his experiments on behavioral conditioning. But, believe it or not, this is how media use was conceptualized over a half century ago in one of the earliest explanations of how and why people use media --- Uses and Gratifications Theory.According to Uses and Gratifications Theory, a primary motivational driver of media use, discovered through research first conducted in the 1940s, is quite simply an established, rewarding, habitual routine. Unfortunately, we often forget how knowledge gained through previous scientific research might actually help us solve critical current day problems, like getting an audience to significantly engage in news consumption in ways that could benefit both society and the news industry.
An article a former student, Ryan Meyer, account manager at the DCI Group, recently sent me reminded me of the importance of habit in all decision-making. This article has been making the rounds on social media lately because it specifically talks about how marketers, specifically Target, use behavioral data to predict when a consumer may be more receptive to targeted advertisements. However, it’s another significant part of this article I want to discuss here. The article provides a very user-friendly description of research conducted in neuroscience on how our brain forms automatic habit routines that help guide our daily decision-making and behavior. Most of these habit routines are so ingrained in our consciousness that they operate without our awareness. This idea is supported by recent experiments demonstrating that our brain is capable of making decisions some 10 to 20 seconds before we become consciously aware of having made a decision. According to this article, two crucial elements in the establishment of a habit routine are the environmental cues that end up triggering the routine and obtaining rewards that reinforce the routine. Once the link between environmental cues, the triggered behavior, and rewards becomes well-established, “presto,” you have a habit routine that can unfold on a daily basis with very little conscious awareness.
Decades ago, Uses and Gratifications Theory established the importance of habit routines in understanding individual's media use. I think recent neuroscience research demonstrating how automatically habit routines are formed and guide our daily behavior increases the current day relevance of this old media research. It strikes me that were an online news website to be designed and delivered in a way that activates neural processes in the brain involved in the formation of a habit routine that website would very likely be extremely effective at not only establishing but also growing an engaged audience. Accomplishing this at a very general level would mean establishing a habit routine associated with the news website that consists of a link between environmental cues to visit the website, actual site visits, and a very rewarding experience obtained from interacting with and gaining knowledge from the news website.
Sounds pretty straightforward, right? However, it strikes me that news organizations often stumble on the very first step in this process, establishing environmental cues to use the news product. Put in less psychological terms, this is all about marketing, something news organizations can often be uncomfortable with. My own personal observation is that news organizations generally do a lousy job marketing their product, which they supposedly believe is useful and may actually have societal benefit. The entire goal of a marketing effort ought to be delivering psychologically powerful,
attention grabbing, and motivating messages that in essence serve as environmental cues that spark the desired behavior --- visiting an online news website as part of one’s daily routine.
One news organization that is at least attempting to deliver these kinds of marketing messages, although maybe not in the most psychologically powerful manner, is http://www.newsy.com/. The marketing team at Newsy does a decent job of pushing messages through e-mail and social media designed to be cues that will spark visits to the website. This is the first step in potentially developing a habit routine surrounding visiting newsy.com. Although I would quibble with the psychological effectiveness of their messaging as well as the frequency with which they deliver marketing messages the team is at least attempting to cue habitual visits to the website. After this first step, an online news website has got to deliver a rewarding user experience if visiting the website is to become an established habit routine.
I obviously think the foundation to delivering a rewarding user experience lies in designing brain-friendly websites, which has been discussed in previous blogs. If you look at the newsy.com website you will note that it’s not necessarily well designed according to principles of brain-friendly journalism that have been discussed on my blog. Thus, you see an example of the state of journalism in terms of applying brain science to producing and delivering great journalism that engages and grows an audience. News organizations typically grasp, or have accidentally stumbled onto, aspects of this process that you can see reflected to varying degrees in both their efforts to market the news product to an audience as well as produce and design content in a way that delivers a rewarding user experience.
In conclusion, wouldn’t it be amazing if with all the handwringing going on in journalism over embracing new technology and how to engage those doggone “digital natives” if the current day problem of capturing and growing the news audience boils down to something media researchers discovered decades ago --- media use is fundamentally driven by automatic, rewarding habit routines established in the brains of the audience! If this is true, then it seems to me that many of the ways in which technology and the news audience are being thought about and the resulting news practices could be misguided. I will address this idea in my next blog.