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AP’s ethnographic studies look for solutions to news and ad “fatigue”

A new study by the Associated Press has come to the conclusion that consumers are “tired, even annoyed, by the current experience of advertising,” and that, as a result, they don’t trust very much of it. But at the same time, AP found, consumers do want information relevant to their needs, as well as ways to socialize that information.

Although it tends to move cautiously and deliberately, AP has been subtly and quietly introducing tools aimed at improving relevance and socialization, and may have plans for an ad-supported aggregation business that applies what it has been learning.

I spoke about the study with Jim Kennedy, AP’s vice-president for strategic planning, about how the study’s findings will impact AP’s strategic thinking. “The future of information delivery needs to be quite different from current practices and quite different from the old packaged practices that we’ve had offline and online so far,” Kennedy said. “That’s the big deal for us now. You can’t figure all that out in a minute or even a year.”

The findings are part of a study called “A new model for communication,” released two weeks ago with little fanfare and no press coverage, even by AP’s own reporters (PDF link to report). The research was done in conjunction with Context-Based Research Group of Baltimore, and was a followup to a 2008 study called “A new model for news” (PDF link to report). Both studies used ethnographic research techniques to do a “deep dive” into consumer behavior and motivations.

Turning news into social currency

In the earlier study, AP and Context found that consumers were experiencing “news fatigue” as a result of getting an “imbalanced news diet” — heavy on updates and disconnected facts, but short on depth and breadth in the form of contextual backstories or updates and spinoffs. To address this, AP recommended that news producers take steps to “improve the discoverability of deep and relevant content,” and improve ways for consumers to derive “social currency” from the news.

“People want to have a relationship with their information sources like the whole relationships they have with their friends and colleagues,” Kennedy said, “and getting all that into your mindset as you go about building new experiences in the next couple of years — as this wonderful opportunity opens up now beyond the web into new devices — it’s just going to be really important.”

Among other things, AP used these findings to adjust and expand the elements in its news stream relating to any particular event. Traditionally, it focused first, and mainly, on distributing a newspaper story. But based on the understandings from “A new model for news,” it switched to “1-2-3 filing” — first a Tweetable headline; then a brief synopsis; then the complete story, along with deeper analysis and forward-looking stories about the day’s top news. In addition, the research accelerated AP’s move into mobile delivery with the AP Mobile News Network; prompted expansion of its offerings in entertainment, sports and financial areas; and increased its production of interactive graphics and alternative story forms.

For the 2008 study, all of this was based on insights gleaned from the anthropologists’ in-depth work with just 18 individuals, all aged 18 to 34, spread between the U.S., United Kingdom and India. And in the current study, there were 24 participants, all in the U.S., aged 18 to 55 but heavy on 18 to 34-year-olds. Kennedy says that the ethnographic methodology yielded insights that can’t be gleaned from survey results: “When it comes down to understanding how people really live their lives, these ethnographics have been really important to us.” While AP is clearly looking ahead by focusing on the “digital native” cohort, Kennedy believes also that the rest of the population “is catching up to the vanguard.”

Steps into social media

As reported in the current study, in 2009 AP also applied the earlier findings to two major efforts to “socialize” the news: its reporting of the Sotomayor confirmation hearings and of the Copenhagen conference on global warming. In the Sotomayor hearings, it used a live-blog plus Tweets, and for the climate talks, it moved the blog into Facebook. Since then, AP has maintained its presence on Facebook and activated its Twitter account, under the direction of a social networking team based at its New York headquarters and headed up by Lauren McCullough.

Significantly, AP is not using its Facebook and Twitter streams to “spool out headlines as a lot of news agencies are,” in Kennedy’s words. “People don’t want to be bombarded by that stuff in the first place, so now delivering that same material into a social environment would be a terrible mistake,” he said.

Instead, AP is using its social streams “judiciously,” both to ask questions and to point people to something they might not know, or have noticed behind the headlines they’re bombarded with.

For example, on Facebook Monday, AP mentioned the passage of health care legislation and asked “How much of an effect do you think it would have you your family?” And in a post late Sunday night: “The House has passed a historic health care bill with a 219-212 vote. Do you think it will help or hurt Democrats in upcoming elections?” Both queries have elicited a few dozen comments from the press agencies 12,000-strong “fan” base.

Over on Twitter, AP asks its 40,000 followers: ‘Watch Tiger Woods talk with ESPN in 1st interview since November crash. Did he answer your q’s? http://bit.ly/cOnxx5 -FWU” and mentions: “You asked, we answered: Solving some mysteries about the health care overhaul: http://bit.ly/b5l0zQ -EC.” The latter links to a Q & A on Facebook.

“It seems kind of funny maybe to be asking individuals for feedback and answering them but that’s the beauty of it,” Kennedy said. “That’s the breakthrough here — that we’re connecting directly with individuals and in doing so we’re actually making a much broader audience connection. So we’re getting individuals to articulate questions on behalf of the whole audience, and we’re answering those individuals on behalf of the whole audience, and it’s having positive effects. It’s certainly engaging the community.”

Removing the middleman (or middle-newspaper)

AP journalists have typically lacked a direct connection to their audience, so they are warming up to the idea of having “a direct pipeline to the consuming public to get their feedback,” according to Kennedy. While McCullough is creating training programs and guidelines, the social networking accounts will continue to be controlled at the New York office.

As for the advertising focus of the second study, Kennedy explained that “we wanted to understand how people come to advertising; how is advertising affecting them in the digital space, what are their thoughts about it in the news context, and then pair that up with what we’ve learned from the news study and be able to talk about the whole experience of news and information and advertising in the same context. That was our motivation, not that it was going to lead to a specific product development by AP.”

However, AP does have advertising associated with both its mobile presence on smartphones and with its online video network (in a model that shares revenue with members who drive traffic to it). And based on what AP has learned about consumer preferences for aggregated content, Kennedy sees the need for another ad-supported AP venture that would supply aggregated content and be operated jointly by AP and its members. “We know that the consumer wants the convenience of aggregated display…and as we think about those things we think about the revenue streams attached to that, and certainly advertising would a predominant one, so that’s why AP is concerned about the future of advertising,” he added.

To combat “ad annoyance,” the study recommends restoring trust, noting that social vetting of information is now often “filling a role historically played by trusted packagers of information, such as local newspapers, which connected readers with advertisers in a trusted environment.” This led the study team at Context to suggest a what they call Communitas, consisting of collaboration, social contract (understood rules), kinship, honesty, reciprocity and relevance. Another partner to the study, Baltimore ad agency Carton Donofrio Partners, has built these concepts into StopTheAdness, a site pledging the agency’s commitment to the new social contract, inviting conversation about it, and asking others to “take the pledge” as well.

                                   
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Ken Doctor    Aug. 25, 2014
“Things” editor, distribution editor, correspondent for progress — as newsrooms change, so do the ways they organize their human resources.