Social Media and Serendipitous Reading

Article ImagePew research from the University of Missouri shows that internet users often come across their news serendipitously while they are searching for other information or doing nonnews-related activities online, such as shopping or visiting social networking sites. This information is hardly surprising, but there are wider implications, for media outlets.

Borchuluun Yadamsuren, a post-doctoral fellow at the Reynolds Journalism Institute in the University of Missouri School of Journalism, surveyed nearly 150 respondents (with further interviews of 20) to understand their incidental exposure to online news. Yadamsuren found a shift in the way people have begun to perceive online news. She says that while some people still perceive news to be tied to traditional media, others now hold a much broader perception of news that goes beyond what is reported by professional journalists. Yadamsuren attributes this to the array of information available online. "Incidental exposure to online news is becoming a major way for many people to receive information about news events," she says.

In order to position themselves as authoritative sources for information and take advantage of this serendipitous phenomenon, media outlets "need to develop better strategies to reach other groups of news readers not only focusing on avid news readership," observes Yadamsuren. This includes placing news links on different sites around the web. "News media needs to have better strategies to place links to their news stories in all sorts of different places-increase traffic by accidental discovery, which is good," she explains.

One way media is unlikely to expand its readership, according to Yadamsuren, is by putting up paywalls around its content. However, for avid readers, Yadamsuren says that brand loyalty trumps all-even if it comes at a cost. "It seems to me that if you are loyal or if you are loyal to a certain newspaper [such as The New York Times] they will pay for it," she says. "People who are not loyal readers ... will have all sorts of alternative options and they don't like that idea of having paid options."

Yadamsuren also feels that the news media "needs to improve media literacy and there needs to be some strategy to inform the public about the importance of paying attention to what is being reported by mainstream media."

There's still something to be said about getting your news from an old-fashioned professional journalist, according to Yadamsuren. She says that finding out the latest headlines from a Facebook friend does not give a reader the complete picture of a news story-and that concerns her.

"People who rely on serendipitous news discovery ... think that they are getting enough information about what's going on about news events, and it really depends on what type of news stories they encountered and from which sources they are getting news," says Yadamsuren. "If you only spend time on social networking sites and if you are relying on your friends sharing links ... It really depends on: who are your friends and what news stories do they share?"

Sean Gelles, director of social media for online performance marketing agency MediaWhiz, argues that people are "not getting information from Facebook--Facebook is a sharing platform." For example, links are shared, and from there, people can read a complete news article from a respected news source.

"Many people are getting their news [from social networking sites] because people are sharing links to articles. And these news stories could be from The Associated Press, The Washington Post, [Los Angeles] Times--all your usual suspects when it comes to top quality journalism," says Gelles.

News junkies within one's social network often post these news links, and these people are well-informed when it comes to current events, says Gelles. "News junkies keep up on the news; every morning they go to or They're sharing these stories through Facebook, through LinkedIn," he says.

In terms of trying to increase reader engagement and readership, Gelles says he feels "news organizations are already doing what they should be doing, which is providing readers with the opportunity to share news articles on other platforms like social networking sites. I can click a button and tweet the article or put it on my Facebook," points out Gelles. "I think news organizations were slow in the beginning but now, by and large, they pretty much get it, and they're doing it right."

Gelles suggests that news organizations should reward readers for sharing. "They want more people sharing their content; they can think about rewarding users for doing it," he says. For example, sites that require readers to subscribe should consider rewarding people for sharing articles by giving them a discount, says Gelles.

In her study, Yadamsuren found that respondents experience incidental exposure to online news in three different contexts. The first group of respondents reported that they come across interesting news stories while they visit online news sites. Others report incidental exposure to online news in the context of nonnews-related activities such as checking email and visiting Facebook and other social networking sites. The third group of respondents reported that they stumble upon "unusual," "weird," "interesting," "bizarre," "unexpected," "outrageous," or "off the wall" news stories while they are conducting their normal internet searches.

Steve Goldner, senior director of social media for MediaWhiz, notes that, in light of the serendipitous news reading study, "Publishers now need to consider how to optimize the consumption of their content."

He explains, "Users do not solely ‘pull' their information by going to a destination site or via search. Contextual relevant content is ‘finding' users, and if publishers are smart this won't be a serendipitous happening. Media organizations need specific channel plans where they identify influencers for their subject matter and seed their content appropriately."

The execution of content pitching, says Goldner, becomes part of a new emerging digital marketing practice called digital PR and outreach: "Digital PR has similar objectives as traditional PR-build relationships with influencers and have them help promote your initiative-but the influencers in the digital space are very different than traditional influencers and execution tactics are changed as well."

Bottom line: You need a plan. Your readers are in the social space, and you need to reach them there.