We live in a global village, just not in the one Marshall McLuhan envisioned.
The Canadian professor who published some of the most influential books on communication believed that the electronic media would transform the world’s population into an interconnected tribe. If a prince gets married in England, or there is an earthquake in North Africa, we will all hear about it, and our new gadgets–the telephone, the television–will bring our tribe even closer together.
Thing is, this is no longer true. We rarely read or watch the same news stories nowadays. A report on a North African earthquake will not necessarily reach us.
According to Pew Research Center, Facebook has become the top source for political news among millennials and Gen Xers. We discover new content on social media most of the time. Heavily personalized websites select stories for us based on our preferences, previous interactions, and even our friends’ tastes.
Traditional media has long lost the ability to control the flow of the information. But the gatekeeper status was not the only thing that news outlets lost in recent years.
Facebook, Google, and other technology companies took a big chunk of their audiences’ attention and advertising revenues, too. On top of that, the Internet giants gained the ability to influence content itself. The stories of online publications will reach significantly fewer people if they are not shareable or written with SEO in mind.
You might ask: Can’t media companies turn things around with the similar methods that made social media sites so successful?
No, it seems very unlikely that they can. But according to industry experts, several media companies have been able to lessen the negative effects of recent changes with personalization techniques.
Most online publishers that recommended stories to their visitors with their interests and reading habits in mind saw an increase in the time people spent on their sites. They were also able to grow the number of stories their visitors actually read during their stay since their users spent less time looking for articles and navigating the sites.
The systems developed to discover what kind of stories a reader would favor have other advantages too. The publishers could use the information they collect to match readers with advertisers in a more effective way.
According to a study carried out by researchers of the City University London, personalization might also help publishers convince people to do something most of us like to avoid. It could motivate us to pay for content.
“Personalisation is something that people would expect if they’re paying for sites, and something that might encourage them to end up subscribing to sites”, one of the researchers Steve Schifferes told journalism.co.uk.
Personalization examples in publishing
The most common forms of content personalization are based on the location, the reading behavior and the topical interest of the visitors. Some sites also take into account what your friends on social networks recommend, or create mobile apps and interactive experiences for their readers.
The Huffington Post is one of the most popular political sites. Its articles are shared by millions on Facebook yearly. The site started to experiment with personalized recommendations two years ago.
The company hoped its new Suggested For You section would increase the shelf life of the enormous amount of articles they publish daily, and convince people to stay a bit longer before they head back to Facebook.
Its recommendation system, which both takes into account the subject you’re interested in and other reader’s behavioral patterns, turned out to be surprisingly successful and increased article click-through rate by over 50 percent on average in the year it was implemented.
The world’s fifth most popular English-language news site, The New York Times’ online version, also displays personalized suggestions to its readers. Its recommendation engine was built in-house and tracks which articles sections, and subsections readers frequently visit.
The main goal of the system is to encourage people to subscribe. Besides the recommended articles, signed-in visitors of nytimes.com can also find graphics about their most-viewed sections, topics and recently viewed articles on the site.
Personalization has an even more important role on the mobile version of websites than on their desktop variants, as finding particular sections is more difficult on mobile devices. People are also more used to the instant and personalized experiences on their mobile.
The New York Times, CNN and The Wall Street Journal have all developed apps that are capable of sending push notifications about breaking news. Although the majority of these alerts are sent out after an editorial decision, many news sites try to refine them with algorithms.
“We’re putting a lot of thought and energy into customized and personalized alerts that rely on algorithms. Technology is getting increasingly personal and increasingly contextual, and anticipates your needs and your behavior depending on what you’re doing. That same kind of thinking needs to be applied to notifications,” said David Ho, executive mobile editor of The Wall Street Journal told Niemanlab.org.
Another area where personalization plays an important role is interactive content. The Guardian, for example, created an app that looked at how fast people could run a 10K, and showed users how they ranked in the country based on data they provided. The interactive content helped the British news site to increase the number of subscribers and shares on social networks.
The Filter Bubble
There are stories about important events in the world that most readers wouldn’t want to miss. Opposers of news personalization often fear that this method could reach a level where we are going to run out of common topics to discuss. For example, a new patch for your favorite game could be the most important news story for you, but you are a hardly going to have a heated discussion about that with your friends or learn anything new about the world from it.
The other major fear of the critics is that the personalized news could strengthen the filter bubble effect. Social media sites already hide the opinions from our feeds that are opposed to our worldview, and if this trend continued on news sites, it could increase the number of people living in their ideological and cultural bubbles, and weaken social cohesion even more.
While I wouldn’t say that these fears are groundless, from the examples I’ve collected for this article, I don’t see this happening yet. After all, readers are going to decide what level of personalization news sites will apply, and it seems that they are both interested in the editorial take on stories on stories, and enjoy personalization, if it makes their life easier, or helps them discover something that they would like to know more about.
Since the sixties, when McLuhan worked on his communication theories, our media consumption habits have changed. Instead of sitting around a screen, we put one in our pocket. The forward-thinking publishers are trying to develop the methods that will help them adapt to the rapidly changing media landscape.
Some alteration seems inevitable. As Matthew Elworthy, the marketing manager of The Next Web, put it in a recent interview to our blog: “If you’re an online publisher, soon you’re not going to be able to get away with not knowing enough about your users.”