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Steve Dempsey: Reaching online audiences is a different story for media firms


WPP said that Eightytwenty is the "market leader" in the Irish digital communications industry. Stock image

WPP said that Eightytwenty is the "market leader" in the Irish digital communications industry. Stock image

WPP said that Eightytwenty is the "market leader" in the Irish digital communications industry. Stock image

Do modern audiences find the news when they want it, or does the news find them on smartphones or other devices while they're going about their daily lives? That's the question that the Pew Research Centre set out to ask with a report called 'How Americans encounter, recall and act upon digital news'.

Sure, the report is particular to American audiences, but it still gives a valid insight into how audiences consume digital content, and how that colours their sense of the news and the media outlets that inform them.

Pew asked thousands of US adults who get their news online to complete a series of surveys over the course of a week. The questions covered the topics readers engaged with - their "pathway" for accessing news - website, app, search engine, or social network; whether they sought out the news or stumbled upon it; whether they remembered the name of the news brand in question; and whether they took some subsequent action after reading, like sharing or discussing the news with others.

So what does the research tell us?

Well, it seems online news discovery is evenly split between intent and accident: 39pc of respondents claimed to have sought out the news, while 36pc happened upon it while doing something else online; 20pc said they use search engines to get their news; 15pc rely on emails, alerts and push notifications, while 7pc rely on emails and texts from friends and family. These patterns are habitual, it seems. The research shows that almost two-thirds of online news consumers stick to one preferred method of getting their news.

The study also found that older male consumers are more likely to active seek out the news, while younger women are more likely to got news through social media.

But what about the thorny matter of recall? Do digital readers remember the media outlets that inform them? On average, consumers who followed news links could name the source of the links 56pc of the time. But again, the findings differ according to demographics: 47pc of 18- to 29-year-olds remember the media organisation that provided their online news, while 57pc of 30- to 49-year-olds, and 61pc of those over 50 recalled the brand involved.

It's also worth looking at the specific news brands referenced. CNN and Fox News were the brands name-checked most often, suggesting that TV still has a grip over digital audiences when it comes to awareness, at least in the US market.

But coming in at number three was a company that produces no news at all, and has denied being a media company at all. Yes, you guessed it. It's Facebook.

Seven other news brands were mentioned by at least 3pc to 6pc of those who clicked on links: MSNBC, CBS, ESPN, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Huffington Post.

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Different types of stories were also found to perform differently. Business news, for example, is more likely to be accessed directly via a news website or app, and far less likely to be discovered via social media. It's the polar opposite of community news, which is far more likely to be found on social than on a publisher's site or app. It's no surprise, therefore, that stories about community affairs are shared socially far more often than any other topic. Science news, on the other hand, was most likely to be bookmarked or sent to someone via email or text.

The take away from this Pew study is an awkward one for publishers. In the digital sphere there's no such thing as media monogamy. The internet has enabled a great unbundling of titles and content, and this means readers are no longer loyal to just one title. Not only that, the Pew research makes it clear that readers have different needs depending on who they are, how they discover stories and what the stories are about.

This has particular ramifications for media outlets that are putting their eggs in the subscriptions and paywalls basket. They are banking on the ability to keep consumers coming back to them directly. It's a strategy that's better suited to some types of content and some types of readers, according to the Pew research - older, male business readers, most likely. But it's not an approach that's well suited to other types of content, other readers and non-direct pathways of finding and engaging with news.

Digital audiences are a promiscuous, polygamous lot. Media companies are learning to court these audiences, but they can't bank on their faithfulness.

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