Consumer-aware, context-aware

“Smart news organizations know that in 2015, the value of our attention will continue to eclipse the value of our clicks.”

Every December, my company produces a report highlighting the tech trends that we think will make the biggest impact in the year to come. The report is built using a tool I developed called the FuturePrint, and calculates the near-future research we do along with patent filings, academic papers, shifts in consumer behavior, changes in government policy, new investments and acquisitions, microeconomic trends, and the like. This year, we published 55 trends (our largest to date) — but from my point of view, only one matters most for those in the news business:

amy-webbConsumers — not their devices — must be the focus of any content strategy in 2015.

When I’ve suggested this to newsroom managers and executives before, I hear the same response: That’s what we’re already doing. Don’t you notice how our app fits both your Galaxy Tab and your iPhone? Can’t you see that we made the mobile version shorter than the web version?

Responsive design doesn’t address the consumer’s needs. It solves the needs of the device. A device over which news organizations have zero control.

In 2015, news content, the brand experience, the interactivity, the social components, and the advertising all must answer this central question: What is the ideal version of this story for this individual consumer, given what she’s doing, what she’s thinking, what she’s been reading or watching recently and how much time she has at this very moment?

It’s critical news organizations reframe their thinking now, as the device ecosystem grows more disparate and the volume of content continues to explode. Consumers will start to lose their appetite for the listicles, explainers, and quizzes that delivered so much traffic this year. The next opportunity for news organizations to gain market share isn’t through a new storytelling template, but rather in a new form of hyper-personalization.

Think about the last story you wrote or helped create. How was it read? Under what circumstances? Where and when do you think it was read? Did it impede or complement what the consumer was doing at the moment she started to read? (Seriously. Take a few minutes and think about it.)

Was there really just one ideal digital version of your story? Of course not: There were likely many versions, each of which depended on a bunch of variables related to the consumer. Is the consumer at home? At a new location? At work? Is she commuting? At the gym? Does she most likely want to read a long, in-depth story right now, or would she be happier just getting a few bullet points? Does she already know a lot about this story, or the key players and facts be new to her? Would she be happier with a video or a text-only version? Is this a story that her friends are probably talking about?

Once you start asking those questions, you’ll realize that there are multiple scenarios and, as a result, many possible versions. There is the “running on the treadmill at the gym” version. The “morning jog around my neighborhood” version. The “waiting on line at the coffee shop” version. The “stuck on a plane for the next two hours” version. The “sitting at work, trying to get smarter fast” version. The “I want others to know about this story so I’m sharing it on Facebook” version.

Those are activities. What about satisfying a consumer’s motivations? Like many people, I want to be delighted, inspired, and engaged. But I consume news content for different purposes depending on the story and situation. Just because I’ve read one article about the Sony hack doesn’t necessarily mean that I want more stories about Sony as a company or about hacking in general. Maybe I was reading it because a friend I trust suggested it to me. Or maybe I’m fascinated by what one of the leaked emails said. Or maybe it’s something else. If you want to captivate me and to keep me reading, any related content shown must factor in my personal preferences, influences from external sources (like social networks) and future desires.

It is possible to offer consumer-centric versions news content by creating and distributing compelling stories using technology we already have. On the consumer side, accelerometers and gyroscopes are in our mobile devices right now. Learning my home and work locations is already a part of the app ecosystem. Predictive modeling is being used outside the industry to help surface our intents as well as our granular likes and dislikes. On the distribution side, algorithmic curation can enable a platform to syndicate different versions of the same story without a lot of extra human capital.

This means that at a bare minimum, news organizations have the ability to know if consumers are jogging, or riding in a car or commuting on a train. If a consumer is moving for more than one minute at 12 mph, why send her a push notification to read a news story? Why not offer her an audio version instead? If, after monitoring her behavior (as so many non-news apps already do in the background), you know that most days at 6 p.m. she’s driving home from work, why not send her a very short podcast version of the day’s news from your anchor or editor-in-chief? If her calendar shows some upcoming travel, why not queue up a list of text-only stories, along with some of your most-read long reads to help her feel smarter faster while she’s airborne?

Some companies have working products that anticipate our needs and provide the right content at the right moment. Google Now is the best example. However, in the coming year, I’ll be watching emerging projects and research from Expect Labs, Cognitive Scale, Microsoft Cortana, Facebook, Amazon, Stanford, and IBM.

Smart news organizations know that in 2015, the value of our attention will continue to eclipse the value of our clicks. The best way to harness attention in the digital ecosystem is to service the consumer’s needs rather than simply repackaging content to fit the form factor of her various devices. A deeply engaged consumer is easier to monetize. She is a good ambassador for the news organization. And, ostensibly, she’s a better informed citizen.

Amy Webb is CEO of Webbmedia Group, a digital strategy consulting firm, and a recent Visiting Nieman Fellow.