Image by Alan Taylor on Flickr. Creative commons license.

Why social is key to creating habit-forming news products

5 min readNov 12, 2014


Social media editors such as myself may often be judged on the traffic they drive to a news site rather than on reader engagement.

Here is a theory for demonstrating the importance of social engagement and how community is key to triggering a habit that will make readers return frequently and, for news sites with a pay model, encourage subscriber sign ups and retention.

Much of this post has been influenced by a talk by Nir Eyal (thanks to Kristine Lowe for blogging about it).

Why do people form habits around products?

According to Nir Eyal, it’s often fear that encourages a person to return to a product again and again. Boredom drives return visits to YouTube, loneliness encourages people to go to Facebook, uncertainty encourages people to search Google, he says.

So for newspapers, news sites and digital products, perhaps the driver is FOMO, a fear of missing out. People return to find out about the key news events that they don’t want to miss.

Rewarding readers

Eyal tells us that habit-forming technology uses one or more of the rewards of ‘tribe’, ‘hunt’, and ‘self’. (I know they are off-putting terms, but stick with me on this.)

One of Nir Eyal’s presentation slides

Tribe is a search for social rewards, we are told. It’s about empathetic joy, partnership and competition.

Hunt is about an information reward or a material reward.

Self is about mastery and completion.

Here’s my interpretation for how that works in the setting of a news organization. Tribe is worked on by the social and audience development team, as they enable social rewards. The hunt is driven by a reader’s desire for information and fed by the journalists who write the news stories. The product folk take care of coming up with rewards of self, of mastery and completion, designing finishable reading experiences. (The new Economist Espresso app is a great example of a finishable product, designed for that short, sharp, shot of news in the morning).

Tribe: The social media editors

Sticking with the tribe idea, it’s worth brainstorming about the different interactions news sites can provide for readers.

And remember, the more social interactions readers participate in, the more affinity and loyalty they feel towards the news site’s brand.

We can encourage people to interact with reporters, finding them through a social byline system, where readers can follow the reporter on social channels from a call to action beside the byline (something we have in place at The Wall Street Journal). We can encourage interaction by retweeting reporters from brand accounts (such as we do from @WSJ). We can include journalist @handles in Twitter Cards (again, something we have implemented at WSJ). We can introduce author follows on Facebook ( in place at WSJ). We can implement a system of author alerts for stories (something the FT does). We can run Twitter chats, Facebook Q&As, and of course community commenting.

Note the comments below the headlines on the Guardian’s homepage

News sites can also consider making commenting front and centre of the site, such as the way the Guardian’s new US homepage simply sells a story with a headline and the number of comments.

Hunt: The journalists

The hunt theory says people are after information. And explainers are a great way of providing that reward. Perhaps that’s why there’s been such a drive towards explainer journalism; we are satisfying an addiction readers have with wanting to learn new information.

Self: The product people

If there’s an inherent need to feel like we have finished a task in order to have the reward necessary to make us return, this flags just how terrible news sites are are giving readers that opportunity. Websites pump out hundreds of articles a day, and it is only apps, whether newspaper-like page turners or mobile apps like the Economist Espresso, that actually provide that complete read.

Storing value

In his presentation about designing for habit-forming products, Eyal also talks about investment (he has a whole theory called ‘hook’ which he has written a book about). Users return and are also retained where there is an ability to store value. He tells us to think about Ebay’s user feedback and how your reputation is stored on site.

This got me thinking and questioning whether news organizations are any good at allowing readers to store value. Does a reader feel locked in by the reputation he or she has built up as a commenter? Can they save stories and build up their own archive? Do they have an on-site data store of personal details, such as their stocks.


Another lesson from the Eyal talk is that people like variable, unpredictable experiences. The Twitter feed, the Facebook feed, the Instagram feed all have the promise of variable reward.

How did newspapers get us hooked?

Printed newspapers satiated our negative emotion of a fear of missing out and they gave us rewards. How social were they in terms of the tribe theory? Perhaps there was an off-line affinity and partnership with other readers of that same brand. They certainly had a competitive element in the crosswords on offer (whether with other readers or with the self). Did they give us the reward of the hunt? I’d say so in the information learned. And how did they reward the self? It was finishable.

How do news sites encourage us to return everyday?

News sites kind of answer the problem of FOMO. But doesn’t Twitter do that better? Do they succeed in forming partnerships and competition between readers? Facebook certainly does. Do news sites provide information? Yes, of course they do. Are they finishable? You know the answer. And do they allow readers to store their reputation or social capital so that they don’t leave and go to a competitor? Show me a good example. (I note that Eyal said one or more of the three rewards are required, not all three.)

How well designed for habit-forming is Medium?

As I’ve decided to post on Medium, I’m flagging here that it has a social element baked in, with reader and blogger interactions; I’m noting the information provided (which has a variable reward). I also rather like the fact that it tells me how long it will take me to finish reading an article. Medium also hooks us in by storing our social capital of previous blog posts.

By RJ Reynolds [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Bad habits?

The idea of getting readers hooked on a product maybe as unpalatable to many journalists as the idea of the Mad Men who enticed our grandparents into smoking. But if you have got this far you may think it is worth rethinking our news products, and you may agree with me in that focusing on social engagement is time well spent.