Users often interact with similar content in different ways. Online news content is a good area to see this clearly. And it is getting a lot of attention these days following the release of the Pew Report on “Navigating News Online.” Some people are casual browsers, visiting sites and stories suggested by their social network. Some people are occasional users, checking in with a news website once a week. There are mobile users who consume immense amounts of content through their mobile device. Others are power users – super consumers who visit several sites, get massive amounts of content, often on a computer, and share that content with others.
Then there are people like me. I consider myself a multi-channel regular user: I consume news content in several different ways (email digest, through websites, rss feeds, and apps on my phone) at least once a day. I never though about why I interacted with similar sites and content in different ways until reading some of the recent articles about the ways people consume news.
With these articles also begins some of the handwringing over the tiny percent of visitors who are power users and how to convert the occasional browser to the famed power user. (See here and here) Looking at my own habits, I don’t think that is the fruitful problem to be tackling. As I mentioned, I have varied habits for consuming news media. One of the most regular is that I receive a daily email from the New York Times with all the major headlines and a one-sentence summary. Even when I used to read paper newspapers, all I did was scan the headlines to get an overview of the news of the day and would read select articles that seemed interesting to me. So the format of the email fits my needs well. I am not likely to change that habit any time soon. Do I then count as a regular user, considering I read the headlines everyday? Or am I considered an occasional user, since I only read articles on nytimes.com itself four to seven times a week? I suspect the New York Times would consider me the latter, but I think that model of understanding news consumers is outdated. In any case, they are supporting my more limited use by offering the email option. And it is to their benefit. In this way, I am still consuming some of their media that I probably wouldn’t otherwise engage with (especially with their new pay wall).
Herein lies a key insight for media and news companies – it is better to have a user accessing a little of your content than none of it. People who don’t actively seek continual engagement with a news site will not magically be converted into power users, no matter what the site does. However, many users will accept a more tangential engagement if it is made easy for them. Like a daily email. Or a mobile app. I use the CNN news app on my phone probably once a week. That is still more often than I visit their site on the computer. I used to read dozens of articles from the BBC, when I had their site as my home page. Now they are just one feed among many that I follow and I read maybe 4 or 5 articles a week. Would I read more if I subscribed to their daily email summary? Perhaps, but they haven’t made it easy for me to do that and I have not sought it out. There isn’t a shortage of content to be easily accessed elsewhere.
Because of this abundance, I don’t think I am alone in diversifying not only whom I get news from, but also how I access it. As media consumers, we can’t be power users of every site we like or trust. Information overload is already a serious problem that will not be abating any time soon. So we develop strategies for processing and sorting media. In some cases this means having a surface level overview of a large portion of the media landscape (reading the headlines in my case). Other strategies include narrowing topics of media, accessing media at different times and through different devices, and relying on social networks to highlight news and events relevant to one’s interests.
Users employ these strategies whether media organizations want them to or not. Indeed, if they want to continue being media providers, these organizations will have to support these new modes of information consumption or be forgotten when another fills their place. We can see this has already begun with aggregator sites, some of which don’t discriminate between user discovered content and user generated content. If the more established news sites expect to continue being a major force in the media environment they will need to find new ways to reach occasional visitors. Email digests, proprietary apps, and twitter accounts are a good start, but more innovative and collaborative ways of supporting users are needed. Are there ways to design more integrated media experiences that aren’t centered on a single site? What will media consumption look like in the future? Video technology is well fleshed out, perhaps we will consume and share media in a completely hands-free way – watching or listening to video and controlling and sharing it via voice control. Or perhaps continued advances in motion control will infiltrate media consumption. Will we access media through websites as we currently do or is the web dead, as so famously claimed?
A certainty for the short-term development of the field, media will definitely be mobile. New forms, such as video, have already adapted to smaller devices with varying bandwidth. Traditional news media (I use the term to describe the traditional model of news – journalists operating under a single editorial organization, not the traditional medium) needs to catch up. Branded mobile applications are a necessary beginning, but not accessible to enough people. When a user goes to check out a link recommended to them by their social network, which they accessed on their mobile device, they expect that link to go to a site that is optimized for that device. If it isn’t, they might not even bother. Mobile friendly sites and emails are absolute requirements for participating in the new ways people consume media.
At least for this year. Beyond that is anyone’s guess, but one certainty is that these efforts will not be enough.