Credit: Courtesy Twipe

Mary-Katharine Phillips is media innovation analyst at Twipe.

Earlier this month, more than 150 leaders of the news media industry gathered in Berlin for the third Digital Growth Summit.

Hosted by Twipe in partnership with DuMont, this year’s Summit focused on habit-forming news products. Publishers such as The Telegraph, The New York Times, Schibsted, The Economist or Handelsblatt presented case studies, culminating in a keynote from Nir Eyal, creator of the Hooked Canvas.

These candid discussions improved our industry’s understanding of just how we can grow audience engagement, with three main takeaways.

It is easier to build upon already existing habits

As anyone who has tried to pick up a new routine knows, it is much easier to make one small change to an existing habit than to change it entirely.

That is why publishers who want to make their journalism part of the daily routines of their readers should try to be where their readers already are every day. For example, Mathias Douchet, director of product at The Telegraph, shared how his team target commuters checking their phone with twice-daily audio briefings sent via WhatsApp.

Audio has also been successful for The Economist, said Remy Becher, VP of product, as it allows listeners to fit their journalism into parts of their daily routine that do not allow for reading, such as driving or exercising.

There is no one solution: experiment until you find the right mix

All publishers agreed that there was no silver bullet to developing a habit and what works for one audience might not work for another. That is why experimentation is so important.

Tor Marius Espedal, head of CRM at Schibsted, advised publishers to not think too much and just jump in and try new things. Schibsted has successfully experimented in a variety of ways, including testing new features and formats, plus entirely new products such as gamification of the news, short briefings or a new subscriber onboarding guide.

"We won’t solve our challenges by implementing one or two or even ten new improvements, we have to test and experiment to actually see what fulfils the needs for our many different readers," said Espedal.

It is important to keep in mind that experimenting means finding the right mix of the comfort of predictability and the serendipity of the unexpected. That is why Nir Eyal advises publishers to build "variable rewards" into their products.

Think of a slot machine - it is addictive because users crave the thrill of pulling the lever and seeing what they are rewarded with. We can see this same behaviour when users pull down to refresh a news feed today. It is this unpredictability that keeps readers coming back every day.

Publishers need to transform their organisational cultures first

Ultimately though, it was clear that there is first some work needed in our own organisations. To succeed while starting down this path of habit formation, many publishers will need to transform their organisational cultures. It is crucial to have everyone aligned to the same goal.

We heard from some publishers that they have adopted agile processes and focused on becoming more data-driven.

However, this is often still very much a work in progress, with some lag between the various teams. Eugenie van Wiechen, CEO of FD Mediagroep, advises publishers not to feel too overwhelmed with starting this transformational process, as ignoring it entirely will result in losing out in the future.

For us at Twipe these learnings were particularly insightful since our work is focused on building technology for edition products. We believe that through their habit-building power, editions are an essential part of sustainable reader revenue business models. The event has brought us one step closer to the right product development strategies, so we are looking forward to the next Digital Growth Summit.

Learn how to create an audience-first strategy at our Newsrewired digital journalism conference on the 27 November at Reuters, London. Head to newsrewired.com for the full agenda and tickets

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