Audience Engagement Digital Publishing
8 mins read

Media businesses face an engagement erosion crisis. So what?

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Publishers are in a perpetual state of crisis. But declines in readership and engagement will test them like never before

Have you noticed that the media industry seems to exist in a permanent state of crisis? Print revenue is perpetually declining, digital habits are changing quickly; the sky seems to be forever caving in. 

Over the last few years, I have come to see these crises as the industry’s equivalent of the wolves in Yellowstone National Park. Once naturally occurring, most are now the result of deliberate human actions. Occasionally frightening, they are capable of serious harm. Even a distant wolf can cause frenzy in the media world. 

Meanwhile, those on the outside, who are safe from risk, remain fascinated by them. So before this comparison becomes tiring, it’s worth noting that the wolves are paradoxically a positive influence upon Yellowstone; even necessary for the ecosystem’s survival. Likewise, in the land of news, crises can benefit the industry.

Crisis as a chance for reinvention

Let’s take a cursory look back at the moments that shaped the media sector over the past decade or so. After 2008, unstable advertising revenue sent media businesses running to light the beacons – only for subscription revenue to answer. 

From 2014 onwards, the steady hum of social media grew into a deafening crescendo of fake news. Many publishers were overwhelmed whilst some lost their senses. But many others were encouraged to view truth, independence, and professional journalism as paths through the noise.

In 2020 the pandemic left – and continues to leave – a scar upon the media landscape. Publishers have had to adapt under significant pressure. There have been job losses across the industry. Yet some say they will emerge from this crisis as more empathetic organisations, closer emotionally to their readers than ever before. In this regard, the rising number of new membership products cannot be a coincidence. 

Future crises, too, will leave behind a range of opportunities in their wake. Take the collapse of the third-party cookie; there may be discord in terms of response strategies today, but publications will probably end up knowing their audiences on more equal terms. This can only be a good thing.

The idea that crises can herald new opportunities is even true when it comes to individual organisations. For a media example of this phenomenon, look at the Yomiuri Shimbun in Japan, one of the most circulated newspapers in the world today. 

Their headquarters were completely destroyed in 1923 by the Great Kanto Earthquake, and unthinkably for a second time during World War II. But Shimbun did more than just survive these crises – they achieved growth due to their strategic choices. For a time in the 60s, Yomiuri Shimbun adopted quite a radical brand strategy, even sponsoring the first Beatles concert in Japan in 1966. 

As a Strategist, I find such examples interesting because part of my job consists of trying to find, track, and study the crises of tomorrow in order to anticipate risk and reward. Furthermore, at the risk of exposing my incompetence in this regard, I am willing to hypothesize as to what the next big crisis in media will be. 

A looming Supervolcano of a crisis

To revisit the metaphor of this article – the looming crisis is less like a wolf in Yellowstone and more like the Supervolcano that sits below the entire National Park. Hidden beneath all the pageviews, payments, and promotions (and neglected in favour of more visible issues), this crisis has apocalyptic potential. So what is it and how might it give rise to a new media reality?

Imagine a time where barely anyone reads online. I mean, properly reads. (Perhaps we are already living in this time and we are just in denial; clearly I am, as evidenced by this article). A study from as far back as 1997 by Jakub Nielsen used eye-tracking behavioural studies to show that readers typically only scan the news online. Since then, most studies have focused on the means and motives of news consumption as opposed to the way in which it is undertaken. 

Even so, the numbers that do exist don’t make for happy viewing. Even back in 2015, Pew and findings showed the average time on site across 50,000+ short form articles was under a minute. This included page load times.

Journal papers, such as this fantastic example from Hendrickx, show how individual publishers (in this case Mediahuis in Belgium) struggle to incentivize meaningful article engagement. They bear out the harsh reality I have experienced myself when working with several global publications – namely that many in media today are grappling with high one-off visitor levels, low average scroll depths and falling time on site statistics. 

This lack of engagement wouldn’t be unique to digital media either – Pew estimates that 27% of Americans didn’t read a book, either in full or in part, in 2019. Do we believe the situation is so different here in Europe?  

Understanding the problem

If we admit that there’s a problem, who is to blame? Have the infinite scroll of Facebook and the reductionism of Twitter altered our ability to concentrate? Has the global surge in University attendance created a negative generational association when it comes to reading? Both these suggestions would explain why “Gen Z” is largely absent from most news sites the world over. 

Has the well documented collapse in media trust caused us to invest less time in news? Perhaps the depressing rolling coverage of the pandemic and doomscrolling habits have put us off?

Others have hypothesized that this age of information abundance has paradoxically made people less inclined to seek out knowledge. This makes sense, doesn’t it? You only look for an oasis when you’re in the desert. Personally, I think there is a bigger contributing factor in play – one that will gradually expose and entrench this crisis of engagement over the years to come.

The football manager Brian Clough once quipped that he had a fine team on paper, but unfortunately the game was played on grass. I often think of this quotation when looking at many media websites today. 

According to Broadband Search, 56% of the web’s traffic so far in 2021 has come from mobile devices rather than desktop equivalents, up from just 6% in 2011. At the same time, average time spent browsing on mobile has fallen every year since Semrush started trying to put a figure on this metric. 

It seems like a pretty clear trajectory and one that will be accelerated by 5G rollout – in fact, I would happily wager that by 2025 almost all online news sites will have a 75:25 percent split in favour of less-engaged mobile audiences. The speed of this shift perhaps explains why so many sites are still built for desktop behaviours (scrolling rather than swiping etc). 

At the same time, the fact many future strategies aren’t taking the nuances of mobile engagement into account is quite simply a sign of negligence. By examining these details, we can better understand the engagement crisis that media faces – and therefore, by the same token, locate potential opportunities.

According to Deloitte, the average American picks up their phone 47 times in a day. Other estimates have this figure as high as 58 times. What’s interesting, is that approximately 70% of these mobile sessions are supposedly fast, compulsive “check-ins” – typically involving messaging or social media apps. 

News publishers’ biggest test yet

News providers are broadly aware of this behaviour and fear a future where mobile content consumption is increasingly scattergun and short.  In response, media has frantically attempted to “build habit” through a spectrum of tactics. Yet, as Wheatly has argued, “the convergence between broadcasting to all mobile users and personalising their content is still in its formative years”. This means a lot of such tactics are reactive rather than proactive in their nature.  

Take email newsletters for example. Although they fulfil a range of purposes, should they be viewed as long-term opportunities to overcoming engagement deficit, given they often merely exacerbate the problem to new channels (evidenced by Mailchimp having the average open rate of newsletters in publishing at a mere 22% and falling)? 

In a similar vein, publishers are increasingly investing in machine learning solutions to understand which readers are most likely to take a range of actions. However sophisticated, they do little to change the fact that reading habits are at best in a state of accelerated flux and at worst in a death spiral. 

At the other end of the spectrum, some in digital news have reacted by abandoning the need to read altogether – through podcasts, webinars, and pop-up events. Whilst these innovative ideas (like the “Think ins” at Tortoise, or the superb array of audio at The Athletic) should be applauded, one wonders how quickly editorial teams around the world can adopt them at scale or how willingly they would pivot from a written content value proposition. 

Even if they could, perhaps time would render them equally susceptible to engagement erosion (see Clubhouse as an example where this is happening all too quickly).

How should we react?

Let’s conclude by asking what can be done to revolutionize the digital mobile reading experience. I think possibilities can be found in the work of Tali Sharot, an expert in Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London. Her team recently presented some findings on why we seek out news. 

According to Sharot, there are three separate motives. First up is “instrumental utility” – to what extent is the news tangibly helpful to an individual? Second is “cognitive utility” – to what extent does news provide better understanding of reality?  Finally, “hedonic utility” – how does news make an individual feel a certain emotion? 

Sharot makes a convincing case for seeing these “utilities” as a means of overcoming engagement deficit. However, if mobile interactions with news are fragmented, fast, and fenced into a small screen – our brains have less chance to identify and process the utility of content. 

This explains why most of Chartbeat’s top articles in 2020 (in terms of engaged time) coincidentally made utility obvious from their heading. For example, the most engaging article last year, according to their list, was titled “Coronavirus will change the world permanently. Here’s how”.

Designated mobile innovation teams, such as that at The Guardian, have already started to explore how the compartmentalizing of articles into blocks could lead to a future written news form that is more digestible on smaller screens. 

Early prototypes have been called “smarticles”. One important feature is that all “smarticles” possess a clear arc – so whether by design or by accident, reflect the emotional journeys of storytelling, helping readers to realise “hedonic utility”. 

As personalization ramps up, imagine if those in digital news also adopted new innovative formats and went further still in terms of quickly signposting instrumental, cognitive, and hedonic utility. Media can take its lead from other industries that have grappled with the same problem in more serious contexts. 

Sharot provides the example from aviation of audiences zoning out from pre-flight safety demonstrations. By experimenting with new formats (from video to dance etc) whilst balancing instrumental utility with positive affect (use of humour etc) has led to a situation where many people now incredibly watch safety demonstrations in their free time.

As the media industry continues to change in 2021, let’s pause for thought, embrace the crises to come, and seek to capitalize on their unique potential for good. 

Matthew Harrison

Matthew Harrison is the Head of Strategy and Planning at Sifted, a media business focused on innovation and entrepreneurship in Europe.

This piece was originally published in The Fix and is re-published with permission. The Fix is a solutions-oriented publication focusing on the European media scene. Subscribe to its weekly newsletter here.