I’ve touched on this before, but I’ll say it again: American attention spans, as tiny as they were before, are getting tinier. We are device-agnostic. We text, Twitter and Flipboard our lives away. We don’t mind switching brands to get at the meat of a matter. We’re like a nation of channel surfers with eight different TV sets and remotes in every corner of our lives: on our desks, nightstands, kitchen counters. Even as I wrote this, I checked my email four times, my texts three; I searched three different websites for mains, brunches, breakfasts and sides; I opened five different articles referencing five different industry studies; and I’m watching (don’t judge) “Castle” on mute.
So it was no surprise to learn that according to a new study by the Media Insight Project, when it comes to news, our attention spans jump from story to story. The project was an examination of people’s behavior as it relates to news consumption, and it specifically focused on whether people distinguish between the news organization (“who gathered the news”) from the discovery (i.e., social media or search engine) and via what device (smartphones, print, television). Not surprisingly, people cared less about device and more about the source of news and how they get it. Technology is a tool of convenience, a vehicle for the stories that people want to read. Of smartphone owners, 78 percent used their phone—a tool of convenience—to get news.
Almost half of US adults have zero preference in specific device or technology for following the news. That same number of adults, approximately forty-five percent, have signed up for news alerts, including text, email or app notifications.
Which perfectly exemplifies the way we should approach our business. The point is to be a media company—not a print media company, not a website, not an app library, but an actual media company encompassing change.
I can’t say it any more clearly than Peter Houston, of The Drum: "People born to the Internet age don’t describe things as digital—cameras are just cameras, not digital cameras.”
Houston is spot-on. We’re in a world looking for more distraction, not less. At the Digital Innovators’ Summit in Berlin, Buzzfeed VP Scott Lamb chalked up his company’s success to monetizing people who are bored: at work, at home, in restaurants.
Gone are the yesteryears when we relied on one man (Murrow, Cronkite, Brokaw, and in my case, Jennings) to deliver our news. And fading quickly to yesteryear is our reliance on even one news network—or brand. According to the Media Insight Project, the news dictates how we learn about it. For breaking news, television still dominates, with half of survey participants saying that they first learned of a breaking story on TV. But after hearing of the story, people broke with the medium, and fifty-nine percent turned to the Internet to follow up. Of those people, 37 percent went to TV websites, while only 9 percent went to sites of print outlets and 10 percent went to online-only sites.
So how does a news brand remain relevant and, well, branded?
Start by considering your own habits. Do you wait to hear about breaking news from the TV or radio? Of course not. Most people get (and prefer to get) news throughout the day, which means you always have to be on with your brand.
Test the timing of your emails, test subject lines, test your social media ins. Set your tweets to at all hours of the day and night. Gauge what works and what doesn’t.
Encourage participation throughout the entire day about a story. Keep pushing for actual engagement with your readers. Give them surveys, quizzes, and polls. Don’t ask open-ended questions; offer them A or B and then follow up on their choice. People like to think they have a lot of freedom in what they’re deciding, but offering a banana or an orange is not really like giving them a choice of fruit.
Always remember to control your message; tailor the offer based on what’s going on in the news cycle and on what your internal data show, but be in control of your own message.
You know what the most interesting point in the study was for me? Generational gaps are fading away. People young and old are exhibiting similar behaviors in that they go to multiple sources for news.
Social media use continues to be a major outlet for American news consumption, and maybe your 15-year-old (or press-hungry nerds) told you that Facebook is dead, but it’s still growing among older people. This means that when it comes to news sources, it doesn’t matter that your readers skew old or young. At publications where audiences skew older, it’s easy to “blame” revenue loss on older people not wanting to engage with social media outlets. Guess what? This study debunks that. What matters is that you hit your readers—old, young, and in-between—across a spectrum of outlets, discovery and devices, because they’re reading on everything.