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Nieman Journalism Lab
Pushing to the future of journalism — A project of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard

Step aside, brand loyalty; we’re loyal to information now

The Pew Research Center released an interesting study last week that offers some sobering — if unsurprising — insights for the news business.

Researchers examined top news stories in the mainstream press as well as what news got traction on blogs, Twitter and YouTube. A main finding was that what’s hot on social media differs — a lot — from what leads in the mainstream press. But what’s even more interesting, I think, is that what’s popular on one form of social media differs significantly from what’s trendy on another. For example, Twitter’s domain is technology, not surprisingly. Blogs and the mainstream press focus more on politics and government. Also not a shocker. As my kids might say: “No duh.”

But what isn’t so obvious is what this might mean. I’ve written before about how I believe the real reason many people don’t subscribe to news online — or in print — is about commitment, not money.

This study crystallizes my thoughts. I suggest these findings illustrate the radically different way today’s consumers think of news, compared with the past. It’s not brand based. It’s not even platform based. It’s based on niche, which many have said before. But the niche isn’t just in the content or the subject matter; it’s in the mechanism of transmission.

Modal switching of media

In other words, the people formerly known as the audience know if they want a certain type of information, they head to Twitter. Another type, they’ll go to YouTube. Something else, that’s what FourSquare is for.

It’s likely not a conscious decision — it’s more visceral than that. But the important point is that the loyalty isn’t to the platform, the application, the delivery system, or the brand. The loyalty is to the need for the information. Another Twitter-like service could spring up tomorrow, and if it fit a niche — or a micro-niche — it could go great guns. People wouldn’t stay loyal to Twitter because “We’ve always been on Twitter.” They’d go where they can get what they want.

That’s why social media flourish and then flounder.

It’s a very different mindset than the one still cherished by some in the mainstream press. That mindset was built on the idea of brand loyalty that grew over time as people saw the brand (the newspaper) as a symbol of something in their lives. A rite of passage into adulthood. A sign of respectability.

Media as tool, media as meaning

For example, when I was growing up in the 1970s, my parents subscribed to the New York Daily News to sate my Yankees-obsessed father’s love for sports coverage. But they also took the local daily for the hometown news. As I grew into adulthood, those papers were a staple on our kitchen table, which would have seemed oddly empty without them. The newspapers weren’t just a delivery source for information.

My children likely won’t ever have that kind of bond with any kind of media. They’ll replace one platform with another as technology improves and their interests evolve. They won’t expect any to have staying power. They’ll instinctively know they are fleeting.

Who creates the information, who creates the news may be meaningless to them. Worrying about the demise of one online platform will be as odd to them as bemoaning the loss of the rotary-dial phone would have been to me.

The question is: How do those in the news business deal with this reality? That’s a tough one. I can suggest what won’t work. Teaching your staff to use Twitter and Facebook as if these are these are the news tools of the trade, the notebooks and pens of an earlier day, won’t cut it. By the time the news professionals get proficient in one platform, the rules and the platforms will change. As I tell my introductory journalism students, my goal isn’t to teach you how to use social media for reporting; it’s to teach you how to be able to spot the next smart app that comes down the pike.

The key is to be fluid and to realize that readers want relationships with people, not brands. That targeting audiences won’t work. You must target your content to the right platform at the right time and be ready to change in a moment’s notice. In short, the goal is to become like the news consumers you are trying to reach.

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  • Kelly Hatmaker, Managing Editor – KMOX/St. Louis

    Want easy proof that the story-teller is still important? Go here.

    Ebert opened his account in Oct. 2009 (after scoffing openly at the service: He now has 156,000+ followers and counting. In May, he tweeted that he had 1.2 million Twitter clicks. And if he retweets an item, chances are that account will get avalanched with ‘follows’ (come to think of it, that’s kinda like the Drudge Report).

    Speaking of which, a ‘Follow’ and/or ‘friends’ lists are absolutely a source of snob appeal for dedicated information consumers: I’ve retweeted several posts from @ebertchicago, but I’ve backed off now, because more people are doing it. I follow @anamariecox, but I don’t care to follow @wonkette (it’s like comparing New Coke and Coca-Cola Classic). I prefer @wired to @gizmodo, but even those tech sources are now so ‘surface.’I have carefully collected a hoard of unique twitter accounts, the way a connoisseur may collect wine or art; the more ‘drilled down’ I can get to the raw springs of data, the better. I am also a careful gardener, weeding out inferior accounts, grafting in any new finds (from blogs, from posted stories online, from names I see quoted, from other media sites, etc.), growing a news hybrid that yields unique data like rare fruit.

    The sheer variety of on-line data sources and the daily maintenance of so many social media accounts, brings me back full circle to the importance of the story-teller and media brand in this brave new world – with this additional nuance.

    Instant, all-the-time access to information (DIY journalism!) was neat and even kinda useful to the consumer – when there were only a few dozen trend sites to pull from. The info scavenger hunt became a lot more overwhelming when the number of ‘must-see’ websites grew to a few hundred, then to a few thousand and so on. There is so much social-media-sourced information out there, it’d be a full time job to sort through it all.

    Exactly. As a TV and radio news producer since 1993, that’s what I’ve always been paid to do. Heck, Twitter feeds aren’t all that overwhelming, if you’ve spent the last decade skimming AP wire queues and network feeds. And if I can show my audience that I’m more looped-in than the station down the street, they’ll feel more informed by association, trusting me to aggregate what they need and want to know.

    Easiest to think of it as a new twist on the cornerstone concept of NEWS COVERAGE. And thus I feel an old chestnut becomes a critical metric for journalism in the digital age: It’s not what you know, it’s who. Then go proove it to your audience.

  • Jay Rosen

    Gina: I think you are onto something, The term I would suggest is “loyalty to stream.” For example, in tech news it’s wherever I can get that flow of news about new products, key people, leading ideas, big companies, bold start-ups and mini-controversies that tells me what the state of the tech industry is…. there I will go, especially when I know that other people who follow the tech scene are going there too. Loyalty to the stream…

  • Marcus Osborne

    What a great read – both the article and the comments.

    I think there are 2 issues here, from the business point of view, the mainstream press simply doens’t understand or doesn’t want to understand what their readers want.

    Successful newspapers such as the Economist collect data about their readers and match, where possible, advertisers to subscribers. This results in limited exposure to irrelevant (from the consumer/subscribers) point of view.

    From the consumers point of view, we’re much more intelligent and willing/able to make our own decisions and form our own opinions, of what is going on in the world. Furthermore, we’re also a little bit more cynical and don’t relate to (manipulated/influenced) media the way we used to.

  • Maarten Corten

    I tend to agree with Kelly Hatmaker. I believe though an integration of both views is possible through the concept of credibility. I still believe in a great future for news brands in structuring and selecting the vast information the Internet has to offer (indeed the very same function it always had). Consumers constrained by time, interest or capability will still turn to these general brands. Other consumers will look for specialized brands in certain niches, which they trust more than the general brand. Trust and credibility are the keywords. Therefore niche brands and general brands can live together, although the former seems to be more fit to monetize on the web at the moment.

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  • Rob Millis

    I’d suggest that source loyalty is not in fact on the decline, though perhaps loyalty to delivery method is. For instance, people are still loyal to CNN because of editorial standards, but now they receive information from that reliable source through a variety of different outlets — TV, Twitter,, or one of their reporter’s blogs. At the same time, as independent sources and unique experts have become more important, I would argue that personal brand loyalty is actually increasing. I may not put much faith in CNN, but I will trust Campbell Brown independently, and will see her as a source no matter the medium or mega-brand she works for. So just as Jay Rosen suggests that a particular stream is reliable for particular kinds of news, so too is a particular source reliable regardless of which stream delivers their reporting.

  • Robert Bacal

    Glad I found this. I know something is interesting if it takes me some time to think about it before I have an opinion, and there’s a lot here. It’s rare a I find sites where there is critical and analytic thinking going on and NEW ideas about social media being discussed.

    I’m not sure how “new” information loyalty” is. I’m fairly sure it’s applied to all media for a long time — choosing the particular “channel” based on need or perception, and I’m sure that a place like facebook also has “brand loyalty”, but I like the concepts.


  • BayuMaitra

    Hi Gina,

    If we were talking about fresh news and headlines, i agree with you. In this case, at this time, people tend to gather any information anywhere,as fastest they can. Their loyalty is to the information, at least for the very first time.

    But, in the other hand, if people doesnt really have a clue of what they’re looking for, im quite sure they’ll just visit their most trusted media. And, seriously, many people doesn’t really have a clue. :D

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  • http://savethemedia Gina Chen

    Some interesting comments. I Particularly like Rob Millis point: “I may not put much faith in CNN, but I will trust Campbell Brown independently, and will see her as a source no matter the medium or mega-brand she works for.”

    I think that’s a really important distinction. Some academic research suggest that people are switching from an authority to a reliability model on the web. (See Lankes, R.D. (2008), Journal of Documentation.)

    In essense what this means is that more and more people are trusting the person (or the several people) online whom they have come to know, trust, etc., rather than trusting the experts. That seems to fit in with what you’re saying. A particular journalist may engender more trust or loyalty than a station or news organization.

    Of course, there are exceptions to this. But I do think in general it’s smart for newspapers to market the personalities of their newsgathers in ways they haven’t before. TV, honestly, has always done this.

    In my experience, some newspapers feel very uncomfortable with this because it doesn’t fit their norms of how they do things. That an area that may be wise to change. It doesn’t have to be icky or overly commercial. As you point out, people trust people.

    Thanks, all, for such a great conversation.

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  • Ted Coltman

    The shift from “platform loyalty” to “information loyalty” may — as Rob Millis suggests — be a shift from loyalty to corporate brands to a following of personal reputations. That, however, is at least partly a result of media executives’ frequent failures to separate the wheat from the chaff among their corporations’ own “individual brands” (e.g., Charlie Savage, Dana Milbank, or Dan Froomkin vs. Jayson Blair, Judith Miller, David Broder, Ceci Connolly, or Charles Krauthammer).

  • Dale

    Fascinating conversation with great points made.

    Loyalty to the stream… I like that… and I think it can go one step further with loyalty to the power of NOW. Cells that wire together, fire together and the sooner the connection to right now fires up, it’s irrelevant to me where it comes from.

    I’m loyal to minimalising the amount of time for the opinions of others to intrude my space – aka – the privilege of creating my own interpretation.

  • Laura Lorek

    Great post and comments.
    People want interesting information from a trusted source.
    When I quit the San Antonio Express-News last September, my 4,000 followers on Twitter did not abandon me because I no longer work for mainstream media. I consider it a plus that I no longer carry the tag of “old media.”
    Veteran journalists who have talent and can produce original content, regardless of the medium – on Twitter, Facebook, Posterous, Flickr, WordPress, Tumblr,, podcasts,, are valuable free agents in this new digital news world. We’re just figuring out how to monetize our talent. It’s just a matter of time before all the pieces come together. And the money will go to the storytellers – not the press operators.
    Yet another reason why newspaper publishers and editors created their own demise. They should have put everyone in their newsrooms with any talent under long-term contracts with built in raises and incentives. Instead, they treated many of their valuable assets like liabilities.

  • Jason Kristufek

    I like the conversation here and I agree that as a consumer I am loyal to where I can get the best information and the best experience.

    I work in the news industry and everything I’m reading about newer brands or existing brands outside of the news industry are that consumers are more attached to brands than ever before.

    The key seems to be able to combine relevant and quality information with a user experience that just rocks.

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  • Stella Tran

    It seems to me in this article that the word “brand” references more to platform (media distributors like Twitter and Google) than publishers (HuffPo, LA Times).

    While swooning over NYT reader comments today, I see that loyalty to brand and information can comfortably co-exist, but platform is solidly in the sphere of uncertainty.

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