From the Editor: Is Your Publication Habit-Forming?
The recent Publishing Business Virtual Conference & Expo, presented by Publishing Executive and Book Business, was capped by a keynote from New York Times reporter Charles Duhigg, who spoke about how habits are formed and maintained, and how we can break (or encourage) them. (Duhigg's keynote can be heard on-demand at the show website.) It got me thinking about the appeal of magazines and their changing place in our lives.
Appeal is a funny thing. We in the business tend to focus on the appeal of content—words, images and design. While this is obviously important, the way we read matters as much as what we read. I'm not talking about mobile versus desktop versus print. I mean how content consumption is built into our routines. According to Duhigg, every habit has three components: a trigger (or cue), a routine and a reward. For instance, as he points out in his book, "The Power of Habit," a trigger can be a time of day or a built-in craving. A routine is what you do each time in response to the trigger, and the reward is whatever you find pleasurable about the experience. Understanding the trigger and the reward can help you change the routine—what we normally think of as the habit.
I wonder if we in the publishing business have thought enough about the power of habit when it comes to inserting our digital products into people's lives. With print, there was a built-in habitual component that worked very well for generations. At a certain time of day, you knew the newspaper would come. You might even have heard the sound of paper hitting porch. This triggered the routine of getting the paper and the pleasurable experience of reading the day's news while sipping coffee. It was the same with magazines. They would appear in your mailbox, or on the newsstand, at a very specific time, calling out to you with a colorful cover or compelling copy. This triggered the opening and reading, as well as the pleasure of relaxing on the couch (or having an excuse not to talk to people on the train, or whatever). There were certain columns or cartoons you looked forward to getting. You couldn't just read the latest from Pauline Kael or "Can This Marriage Be Saved?" whenever you wanted; you had to wait for it. Maybe a friend of yours picked up the magazine on the newsstand first before you got it in the mail—annoying, right? But it only heightened the anticipation.
We take it as self-evident that newer distribution channels are superior, and maybe they are. Who wants to annoy a reader with late news or the inconvenience of stopping by a newsstand when they can access content as soon as it is posted online? It's getting harder and harder to find even the most die-hard print lover who's not toting a tablet or squinting at a smartphone. But what we have not yet succeeded in doing, in my opinion, is replicating that cue-routine-reward experience that was part and parcel of print media. Even if you check the New York Times every morning on your iPad, this is only "habit light." Some of the stories you encountered are ones you read the evening before. Most of the news you already know, because it happened yesterday. You do a quick browse and return to the paper later in the day (or not). Our cues and routines are fleeting because we are distracted by a hundred other things. The rewards are less potent. Habits are easier to break and reform, shifting with the vicissitudes of the 24-hour news cycle. And magazines online don't "feel" any different—they are another content source in a world of options online. Who knows exactly when articles appear and disappear? You meant to read that movie review today; you'll get to it later. You get the picture.
I think there are clues out there as to the best way to get readers to form and strengthen habits around digital media products. Every month, I get an e-mail from The Atlantic announcing their new issue and summarizing all the content. Magazines could run ad campaigns built around the idea of an issue cycle, even if the boundaries of these cycles have become somewhat fuzzy. Publications should look at where cue-routine-reward components continue to exist; for the New York Times, I think it is in the weekly round of columns appearing from their popular crop of op-ed writers. There are many people who look forward to reading David Brooks every Friday. That's something the Grey Lady can work with.
What do people love about your publication? How do they read it, and when? What are the cues and rewards, and how can you strengthen them? These are all good questions to ask as you formulate your marketing, audience development and audience metrics efforts. Maybe someday we'll discover the digital equivalent of the paperboy's bell.
James Sturdivant is Managing Editor of Publishing Executive. E-mail him at JSturdivant@Napco.com