Cracking the science of incidental exposure

The way we’re reading the news continues to change.

Are you reading this article in bed? When it comes to the news, the public you’re trying to reach probably are. Today smartphones are now as important for news inside the home as outside, with 46% now accessing news in bed, which is more than people who commute and read. This is according to the Digital News Report 2017 by Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism; a ‘must have’ annual read for everyone who works with media.

It’s the psychological aspect of news that really deserves attention, to which business models should follow. For instance, to this day many publications and bloggers alike think of their audience as the people who keep coming back. Whilst statistics show dedicated readerships exist, such as the Financial Times increasing their digital subscriptions by 14% last year and the US showing evidence of a ‘Trump bump’ as online news subscriptions jumped from 9% to 16%, still only one in ten people choose to pay for their news (with the exception of the Nordics, Southern Europe and Asia).

Leading to an increasingly common side-effect of our news being distributed by aggregators (e.g. Feedly and Google News), social media, and TV; incidental exposure. It’s potentially why you’re reading this newsletter in the first place. It came from out the blue, delivered by email or a link shared online, incidentally exposed to you whilst you expected to be doing something else.

Before the loyalty that comes with brand recognition, people choosing to hit subscribe; getting news to appear (or disappear…) in front of an audience matters. It’s partly why Investigations Editor at BuzzFeed, Heidi Blake, made the very public move from The Sunday Times in 2015 as the pay wall restricted sharing on social media and therefore story exposure. There is a reason the Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) industry has been valued at $65billion, why in-house digital PR budgets have risen 9%, and digital services by agencies such as blogger outreach are so valuable (see PRCA 2016 report here) — organisations want to be found.

Whilst the science behind fake news is complex, its clear intention is to draw attention to fuel a business model based on advertising. In an age of incidental exposure, the truth can take a backseat. If quality investigative journalism is heaven, then fake news is post-truth hell; both favour business models based on online advertising.

Organisations play by the same rules, becoming their own news publications but incidental exposure comes with another challenge, as aside from our stories and content being noticed, we have to protect recall of our brand. Reuters found that whilst people could remember how they accessed their news in the UK, less than half could remember the news brand itself from search engines or social media.

If your organisation is playing the media game, then the same rules apply to you. Think about how you are drawing people to your website directly, how you’re appearing in search engines, and what your social media presence is like; embrace that incidental exposure exists. Sometimes our company news will naturally take centre stage and draw the crowds, but often campaign content competes against a competitive news feed where readers can be drawn anywhere.

Whether you’re reading this news in bed or in the office, the challenges modern journalism faces is a wake up call for us all.

This article was first published in the Lansons Summer Newsletter 2017.

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