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News habits: Getting readers hooked in the digital age

Recently, we gathered the leading minds in our industry for the third “Digital Growth Summit” in Berlin. Through candid conversations and thought-provoking debates, we were able to advance our understanding of habit-formation strategies for news products.

While it was clear that no one seems to have cracked the code yet, we learned that to succeed with habit formation will require organisational change, a deeper understanding of readers, and continuous experimentation. To elaborate on these learnings we have spent the past few months interviewing leaders of newspapers with strong habit formation strategies.

A long history of habit formation in the news industry

From our previous research in this series, we know a key benefit of newspapers is their regular publishing frequency: subscribers know when they can expect new content. It is this routine frequency that has made newspapers so habit-forming for many years. Every morning when you opened your front door, you would see that day’s newspaper waiting for you on your doorstep.

However, when news went online, this product experience did not follow. Readers can pick from thousands of different news sources, with each competing to publish the newest first. Gone is the regular, predictable publishing frequency of the printed newspaper. This lack of routine in the digital news sphere spells trouble for publishers.

Habit formation is now the top concern amongst leading newspaper executives. How can we create news products that encourage readers to adopt them into the daily routine? 

For digital the importance of a daily habit is just as true, shows research from the Medill Local News Initiative at Northwestern University. In a study of over 13 terabytes of subscriber data from the Chicago Tribune, Indianapolis Star, and San Francisco Chronicle, they found that regular reading habits were the most strongly correlated with subscriber retention, more so than even time spent or number of stories read.

In short, the study found that frequency is more important for retention than extent or depth. In this analysis, the number of days a subscriber reads in a month was found to relate to the percent cancelling their subscription. They found a sharp decline between subscribers reading 0 to 10 days a month — the cancellation rate is cut by more than half.

What is a habit?

There are various ways that habit can be defined, but we’ve chosen to use Nir Eyal’s definition: a habit is an impulse to do a behavior without conscious thought. It can be triggered externally or internally.

For a habit to be created, first the reader must be triggered, either internally through their own desire or externally by an action taken by the publisher. Then an action follows, such as clicking a link to an article on Twitter. Actions can be facilitated by good usability design, which increases the ease of follow-through.

Next is the need for a variable reward, which is what differentiates Nir Eyal’s Hook Canvas from other feedback loops. Getting those shares and likes and retweets is what users crave, for example. It becomes an automatic thing that sends endorphin levels through the roof. Finally comes the investment from the user, such as sharing an article, inviting friends to share in this experience. This commitment can help to make triggers more engaging. This cycle becomes a habit loop, encouraging people to continue the action until it becomes a full habit. 

While there were many disruptions brought by digitalisation, there were also new incredible opportunities. Afternoon or weekly publications could start experimenting in the daily morning zone at a relatively low barrier. Such digital-only editions, profiled in the first chapter of this series, have been so successful because they tap into the internal triggers many readers face.

For years, people have had a routine of a morning update of the news before going to work. That’s why The Economist and Le Monde, a weekly and an afternoon newspaper respectively, decided to leverage this desire of a morning update to reach new audiences, younger than their traditional products. They both created daily, morning digital-only editions. For The Economist, they even took the name of their new product from this trigger, calling it “Espresso” to align with a daily routine of news and coffee in the morning. Their readers have made these editions part of their daily routines, truly developing a habit for consuming the news in this innovative format.

We also saw the importance of external triggers for those digital-only editions as well. One example that stood out was Tamedia’s 12-app, which would send a push notification to readers at noon alerting them to the new edition. The team observed that many readers would scroll through the new stories once they received the alert, then read the stories in-depth later that evening. It was the push notification, an external trigger, that helped readers incorporate the edition into their daily routine. They learned just how important this external trigger was though one day when by accident it did not get sent. The edition’s download rate plummeted. 

That’s why, to ensure readers truly adapt news into their daily routine, it is important to provide a reward for reacting to the trigger. There are different ways to reward readers with the news content itself. In our own research at Twipe, we’ve defined the nine building blocks of positive affect. To succeed, publishers need to mix the comfort of predictability and the serendipity of the unexpected.

While it’s important to have a predictable publishing schedule, often readers still want to be surprised with the content itself. This idea of a variable reward is key for habit formation, according to Nir Eyal. He stresses the importance of giving your readers a variable reward for their actions.

Using the example of a slot machine, users start to crave the thrill of pulling the lever and seeing what they are rewarded with — we can see the same behavior when users pull down to refresh a news feed today or when they use Tristan Harris’s “pull to refresh” functionality, which can be incredibly addicting. The unpredictability makes the reward much more exciting and will keep users come back every day for the surprise.

Putting users to work is critical in creating products people love. Habit forming products can appreciate in value – they gain value the more we interact with them.

Nir Eyal, author of Hooked

The final step of Nir Eyal’s famous Hook Model is the “Investment Phase”. Research shows that putting effort into a task adds value to the product itself. The more you add new friends on Facebook, or share more photos on Instagram, the more valuable you find the platform. Storing this value makes you more committed to the product.

In the publishing industry, this could be readers archiving their favourite articles or setting up their own personalized feed. These features get readers hooked and encourages them to renew their subscriptions.

Mary-Katharine Phillips
Media innovation analyst @ Twipe

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