Commentary

What Publishers Can Learn From Social Media

Digital media platforms like Facebook and Google's YouTube have been criticized for creating addictive technologies that keep audiences engaged by highlighting content that stirs emotions like shock and outrage. Critics have blamed the platforms for spreading propaganda, hate speech and other objectionable content that tears at the social fabric.

The book "Zucked" by Roger McNamee, an early investor in Facebook, catalogs the many ways the social network worked to develop an addictive technology. Many of its ideas were inspired by B.J. Fogg, the professor who founded Stanford University's ominous-sounding Behavior Design Lab, according to McNamee's telling.

The "like" button, "bottomless bowl" of news feed posts, "variable rewards" that act like a slot machine and personalized content based on past reading habits all helped to keep Facebook's users coming back for a daily dopamine fix.

While I’m not recommending that publishers use the same strategies to engage readers, there are some lessons to be learned from social media in cultivating an audience that makes reading a frequent habit.

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Digital publishing firm Twipe this month published a report that studies how publishers are developing content, testing engagement and using push notifications to readers to return to their digital sites. The Economist, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and Norwegian publication Schibstedare among the publications featured in case studies.

It found the number of days a reader engages with a publisher's product helps to predict whether that reader will become a paying subscriber. Boosting those active days is a key part of onboarding readers, while pointing out a website's services and daily content.

Publishers also can add “finishable news” packages and gamified features, like daily puzzles, to help retain readers. Mobile notifications also help to drive web traffic, as long as they are not so intrusive that a reader decides to opt out of them.

"Newspapers have to re-embrace what has made them successful for more than 400 years: the habitual power of their products," according to report author Mary-Katharine Phillips.

The study found that habit formation, an average of 66 days before the behavior is ingrained, and three reading activities a week is "the tipping point where occasional engagement turns into predictable, habitual behavior."

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