Anyone got an odd $150,000 lying around?

I could use that money to resolve one of the industry’s most compelling challenges: how to get online readers to hang around.

The problem isn’t new: Newspapers are read for around 30 minutes a day, around 20 days a month. Newspaper websites are read for 4.4 minutes, only 8.4 times a month. Personally I find navigating most newspaper websites to be a painful, non-satisfying experience. And I have plenty of experience, and a need to read.

So let me draw on some of that experience.

Fifteen years ago, as newspapers began adding color to their pages, I was asked to measure the benefit that color advertising would provide. I adopted a dual measurement approach, using eye-movement cameras to track the differences in what people read in color as opposed to black-and-white. We also interviewed participants to determine what they recalled.

To our initial horror, the results did not specifically correlate.

I feared that I had wasted my client’s investment. Further analysis revealed that participants were recalling ads they had seen in their peripheral vision, but because their eyes hadn’t moved, there wasn’t anything for the cameras to record.

Understanding the basics

That lesson became important as I began to understand the nuances in analyzing how readers navigate through a page.

The eye absorbs the headlines of a newspaper page before the brain decides what to focus on. An advertisement has to work in about 0.35 of a second. But once engaged, readers are prepared to spend time with content — stories or advertising — if the message is compelling.

Here is a strange thing that I learned during this project. The eye instinctively looks down, not up. Why? Because over thousands of years, we have been programmed to look at where we are walking before we look to the sky. So I was not surprised when, not long after this research project concluded, Microsoft moved many of its navigation buttons to the bottom of the screen, and Apple’s dock followed.

Another result from the research is the importance of typography. A study that I undertook in the 1980s showed that even a minor difference in typefaces has a dramatic effect on readability, reader fatigue and advertising recall.

Unfortunately, as interesting as this research is, very little of it translates into the digital format. We may understand the scientific and marketing implications of viewing behavior, but this understanding hasn’t migrated into a meaningful digital navigation system.

The problem is compounded by the fact that search is linear rather than intuitive. I can search for a particular subject, but drilling down to what I really want to know remains frustrating. I can personalize, but I can’t scan online content in the same way that the eye, and my subconscious, can.

If we can solve these issues, we can understand why newspaper websites attract a lot of traffic but little audience engagement.

Gadgets abound

As gadgets like e-readers and tablet computers proliferate, the newspaper industry needs to be far more scientific in understanding how people read. Three initiatives will help us to that.

First we need to understand how online users navigate. The print experience is simply not replicated in the digital space.

Second, content consumption requires a Search 2.0 — a combination of serendipity and personal experience. I have been predicting for a while that Google search is at the peak of its product lifecycle. We are awaiting the next generation of intuition.

Third is a greater understanding of the wider level of newspaper consumption. In the United States, newspaper websites attract a healthy percentage of Internet users, but they don’t stick around very long or read very much. Why?

Such research is essential for our industry. Analysis suggests that while patterns vary from title to title and country to country, the lessons are the same. We do not have the same understanding of the screen-reader experience as we have of print.

But if newspapers are to make the strides in the digital world that we originally anticipated, understanding why our digital sites are not delivering at the levels we deserve is a small price to pay.

Checkbooks out, my friends.

Jim Chisholm is a France-based independent media consultant. He can be reached at jim@jimchisholm.net.

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