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The Third Way to Media Success

Northwestern University researchers look to link editorial talent with audience experiences to get an elusive Web-era result — loyal readers and viewers.
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Media users now sup at a cornucopia of choice. It's a Golden Age of information and a Dark Age of ill-informed opinion, and traditional and startup media alike frantically cast their (Inter)nets to engage audiences for more than a nanosecond.

Those of us in "the media-academic complex" have tended to look at readers, viewers and visitors through two lenses that, at their margins, might be labeled "The Muse" and "The Marketplace." The media leaders looking through the Muse lens try to go beyond what people want right now to satisfy them with what they didn't even know they wanted. A Muse Visionaries Hall of Fame might stretch from polymath publisher Ben Franklin to zeitgeist-definers such as Time's Henry Luce, Playboy's Hugh Hefner and the Browns — Helen Gurley (Cosmopolitan) and Tina (Vanity Fair and, she hopes, The Daily Beast).

Marketplace aficionados, on the other hand, analyze demographics and business segments, looking for ways to intersect with different touch points in customers' professional or personal lives. Think of their goal as an in-basket filled with Oil & Gas Journal, Offshore, Oil, Gas & Petrochem Equipment and Oil & Gas Financial Journal — all published by the same PennWell media company along that industry's value chain.

In This Issue

Do bacteria think? Is Facebook a medical record? Can we reform welfare reform? Check out those stories, our cover story on dealing with climate change through ocean carbon sequestration, and much more in the November-December 2010 issue of
Miller-McCune magazine.


The myriad choices before today's active audiences challenge even the best practitioners of either approach. After all, the information highway is littered with media roadkill: text, video and multimedia offerings mowed down by either weak creative execution or "survey says" slavishness. Researchers at Northwestern University have explored a "third way" that couples creative expertise with deep knowledge of audience experiences to build long-term reader and viewer loyalty amid a sea of media churn.

In 1999, support from the Newspaper Association of America led to the founding of a Readership Institute at Northwestern's Media Management Center. A massive study of 37,000 readers encountering 74,000 stories subsequently explored newspaper content, impact and readership, and more specifically the connections audiences made with that content.

Starting in 2002, professors Bobby Calder and Ed Malthouse concentrated on audience experiences of media, conducting hundreds of in-depth interviews with media consumers about how particular titles fit into their lives. As the research unfolded, common themes that went far beyond traditional demographic and psychographic categories emerged as lively descriptors (e.g., "It's a quiet time" in the "timeout experience" diagram below). These were further developed through "experience questionnaires" that were administered to readers of 100 newspapers, 100 magazines and 40 websites — and, in 2007, to 1,400 watchers of local TV.


Factor analysis showed that these personally relevant responses correlated like atoms bound into molecules and that collectively they described an audience "experience" — in our definition, the set of beliefs that people have about a media brand. Instead of terms often used by journalists — "news" or "features," for instance — the responses from this legion of media users suggested more than 40 experiences, such as "makes me smarter," "timeout" and "talk about and share." (Calder and Malthouse developed these audience-centered names in consultation with industry experts.)

These were not simply new names for ideas journalists already had. From a research perspective, regression analysis and hierarchical linear models showed that strong associations existed between experiences and usage across many titles within a medium. The data also allowed journalism practitioners to use experiences to create and motivate audience engagement with media and increase media usage.

Most of these experiences motivated readers and users to engage with and use the newspaper, magazine or website in question. A smaller but significant group of experiences — "it disappoints me" and "overload," for example — impeded use. The intensity of particular experiences was measured, rising or falling for different demographic cohorts (it's no shocker that teenage girls favored "something to talk about"), for different types of content (the experiences that most motivated Guideposts' religious readers differed from what inspired The Economist's executive audience) and for different media.

Media Management Center staff became Johnny Appleseeds of experience-based engagement, speaking to several thousand journalism and advertising professionals, disseminating research, and advising publications and industry associations. Media outlets here and overseas explored reshaping their story planning and display to energize particular reader experiences.

"The research quantified the strength of experiences in how they drive readership," recalls Mary Nesbitt, who has been managing director for the Readership Institute since its inception. "Some ideas might have been out there already, but it showed that if you let deep consumer understanding of experiences influence editorial judgment, you'll reap positive reward."

In 2005-06, center Executive Director John Lavine became dean of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, Nesbitt became its associate dean, and project director Steven Duke became an associate professor.* Audience experience soon joined Medill's emphases on storytelling and partnerships with media through "innovation projects." For example, an experience-oriented lifestyle collaboration, and INstride magazine, helped Indiana's Hoosier Times satisfy readers and attract new advertisers.


By 2010, 16 faculty and an alumnus were analyzing how attention to reader and viewer experience was ramping up audience affiliation at a variety of media operations — ranging from Food Network to Popular Science and beyond — for Medill on Media Engagement, a book published this fall.

What follows is a chronicle of some of the successes and challenges involved in engaging audiences via their experiences with entire media brands, specific titles and individual stories. Most have been implemented independent of the center's research — but they are highly simpatico to it. launched in January 2008 as a dramatic evolution from the traditional print titles published by Advanstar Communications [disclosure: a former client of mine]. As a Web portal designed to be a medical one-stop, its success depends on providing health care professionals with "best-in-class content" broad enough to generate the tons of traffic needed to monetize a massive site yet precise enough to satisfy 31 clinical perspectives, from allergy to urology.

The portal hosts what the center would call "makes me smarter" content drawn from Advanstar titles such as Cosmetic Surgery Times and Ophthalmology Times, as well as material aggregated from key opinion leaders and other credible sources Web-wide. Business acumen flowed from the venerable Medical Economics magazine and from medical centers of excellence around the country. Product and career information and interactive tools deliver the center's "utilitarian" experience.

Such a massive landing zone — think JFK rather than Teterboro — required a blueprint. To keep Web visitors from going off the runway, the site's strategic "road map" demanded a real bond between the site's brand and its audiences.

Dr. Steven Merahn, general manager of, said the site had to create an emotional connection that respected health care professionals' shared culture, which includes responsiveness, respect, simplicity and value. "Irrespective of what we say we are, the audience will relate to us, and speak to us, based on their experience of us," the road map stated. "Brands are successfully managed when the brand experience aligns with the brand promise. Any disconnect becomes evidence of falsehood, and a pattern of falsehood is antithetical to loyalty." reportedly attracts 300,000 monthly visitors, more than 100,000 of them physicians. "Real success for any community-based site is getting people to come back on their own," said Mike Alic, Advanstar's vice president of strategic planning. "To do that, you need to be part of the narrative of their life."

The Washington Post ran afoul of its own brand promise in 2009, when it had to back off a proposed series of business-side-inspired "salons" designed to put together newsmakers, journalists and private sponsors for off-the-record discussions. Worse, the contretemps surfaced on the day Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli was citing readers' expectation that the paper "look out for their interests" and noting that "the Post takes very seriously our watchdog role."

Mainstream-media haters predictably piled on. But as Post Ombudsman Andy Alexander told Medill professor Ellen Shearer, "I got a large number of e-mails and calls from local and longtime readers ... who ... just couldn't believe their newspaper would contemplate something like this. ... In a way it was heartening to know that, historically, people have regarded the Post as their protector."

Or, as the center's research would put it, the Post and its audience relate deeply around the civic experience and its sub-tenets of making a reader "feel like a better citizen" and "more a part of the community," of being at a "disadvantage in life" without it and of being able to "count on this newspaper/station to investigate wrongdoing."

Media leaders ignore the power of audience expectation - how readers and viewers are engaged with brands — at their own peril. Do you know anyone outside the executive suite nowadays who thinks BP stands for "Beyond Petroleum"?

Many media titles have become leftovers, but Food Network's cable TV operation, website and magazine continue to serve up a value meal. Food Network's "high concept" mixes three experiences identified by Northwestern research: "utilitarian," "anchor camaraderie" (a connection with TV personalities) and "makes me smarter." But, as Medill alumnus and Editor-in-Chief Ben Sylvan writes in Medill on Media Engagement, "It took time to find the right recipe."

Initially, Food Network's featured expert chefs stressing food quality on stand-and-stir shows. Further audience study led the network to target the aspirations, needs and price points of everyday people. "People wrote in and said they loved watching, but more as armchair cooking; the recipes were fabulous but complicated," Susan Stockton, senior vice president of culinary production, recounted. "They really wanted to know how to make a great meatloaf or perfect brisket" and, by extension, to feel good about themselves and the world around them. Sets for most Food Network shows came to suggest people's homes (the chrome-laden Iron Chef being a male-oriented exception), and Ten Dollar Dinners premiered in August 2009.

Utilitarian instruction for easy cooking remains a key ingredient — especially during the day with stay-at-home moms. But as recipes proliferated online, Food Network also sought engaging hosts who could radiate what is called the anchor camaraderie experience — think perky Rachael Ray and her casual style of directly addressing viewers. The "Who's Cooking?" section of highlights personality-based solutions, with "Budget-Friendly Cooking" and "Quick & Easy" also putting affordability front and center.

And so senior vice president of programming Bob Tuschman could describe "a unique network and website that strive to be way more than cooking. ... We are a personality-based network." Those three central experiences characterize the entrees on Food Network's sought-after menu. And the results have been tasty: Food Network magazine has increased its circulation rate base promise to 1 million from 300,000 since launching in late 2008; averaged 8 million unique visitors during June; and Food Network TV audiences have spiked as high as 3.7 million viewers.

In this age of Internet disaggregation, newspapers are often criticized for being too oriented toward a general readership; one solution stresses a focus on audiences that rally around localism. In Phoenix, the fashion section of The Arizona Republic clothed itself in what Media Management Center research calls an "identity experience" — in this case, the identity being the Desert Fashionista.

Rachel Davis Mersey worked at the Republic and now teaches audience understanding at Medill. "Anyone who has spent time in the Valley knows there is a look to the Phoenix-area woman we are talking about here," she writes in Medill on Media Engagement. "We knew their environment (warm, OK, hot), their style (casual; this is the desert), their shopping venues (area malls and boutiques) and their hangouts (very popular to show women-on-the-street style). These are all marks of their identity that the competitors missed on the regional and local levels."

The staff meshed this initial editorial vision with research on "fashionistas" and then shaped content — subjects, tone, design and usability — to trigger the audience's DNA. YESYour Essential Style — was launched in May 2002 as a four-color tabloid insert in the Wednesday paper and on newsstands in selected locations.

Getting Engaged

Here's how to use experiences to increase media usage, according to Northwestern University professor Bobby Calder:

• Draft a specific, succinct and riveting concept statement to define the title's target audience. Include the "contacts" — mainly, the types and forms of content that can deliver key experiences to readers or viewers. Also identify the title's competitive differentiation from other, similar media. This statement needs to trigger the audience's beliefs and its definitions of success and happiness. Most important, it has to project — as the "road map" puts it — "not what we do, but our value or service to the audience."

• Use both creative insight and audience analysis to select the key experiences most meaningful and relevant to the groups targeted as vital to a brand's growth.

• Determine when to best serve the audience: a time, a season, a moment when it is most able to distill the concept and use its information.

• Develop the insightful content that can make experiences sing. That content is a key contact, of course, but so is how stories are told — jump cut or long-form, emphasis on usefulness or vicariousness, etc. These days, relevant user-generated content (as opposed to, say, racist spew) can also provide a strong "contact."

• Excel so thoroughly that the audience immediately thinks of this title when seeking a key experience.

• Continuously test, maintain and manage the content decisions fueling the experiences that will provide reader, viewer and visitor satisfaction over time.

The challenge for YES was to ruthlessly maintain its identity through focused stories, angles, tools and tone, and the section has been sufficiently successful to continue to today. But Republic Editor Randy Lovely recently noted an identity filigree that shows the need to continue monitoring experience implementation — a name change to Fashion & Style. "Readers and advertisers reacted favorably when asked specifically about the content subject," he e-mailed me. "[But] the YES moniker still had not taken hold in the market after these many years. The identity of the section was not as solid as it should be. We decided to change the name to provide clarity."

Popular Science magazine predates Edison's light bulb, Bell's telephone and Madame Curie's work with radioactivity. But like science, publishing involves continued discovery, and a contemporary surprise occurred when focus group participants reported that they weren't buying Pop Sci just for its smarts — they were bonding to it through what Media Management Center research calls a "timeout experience."

"This idea of Pop Sci as a downtime treat emerged really strongly," then-Executive Editor Mike Haney reported to Medill professor Patti Wolter. "Hearing people tell us this was a leisure activity and not an educational tool reminded us to, for instance, make sure we weren't using jargon ... not let our infographics get too ambitious. If any of our content feels like too much work to figure out, or makes the reader feel dumb, you suddenly shatter that 'escape sensation.'"

So in 2006, Popular Science launched "Instant Expert," a two-page section that deconstructed topics in an engaging, almost encyclopedic manner, with infographics and frequently asked questions. It's not a breathtaking-vista kind of escape. Instead, "it aims to prepare readers to be the smartest guy around the water cooler when that topic comes up," Haney told Wolter. As she puts it, "This is a timeout for the curious mind."

Four years later, "Instant Expert" appears periodically, but the entire magazine is now highly chunked into pieces of illustrated copy rather than long narratives. "The editor [Medill alum Mark Jannot] believes that material needs to be reader-friendly," Haney told me. "It's also easier to edit." Still, today's version of the magazine extends the "timeout" insight. "It gives them places to return to when they have that little bit of downtime," Haney said, "to dip back into it when they can."

Readers seem to agree. The magazine has held its 1.3 million-circulation rate base over the past three years, a period during which many other magazines lost readership. Eighty-two percent of surveyed readers rate Pop Sci as "very good/one of my favorites." And the bite-sized information approach leads to four out of five readers picking it up multiple times and spending 50 minutes with it.

Other successful publications put the "timeout" experience front and center. Self magazine, a 1.5 million-circulation monthly, "is definitely a curl-up-and-read magazine," Executive Editor Carla Levy told Wolter, herself a former features editor for Self. But, Levy added, "the readers also consider challenging themselves to be part of their timeout. They get an hour to themselves, and they want to ... accomplish something, whether it's cook the perfect pasta, spend time with friends or work out."

The Sunday New York Times has had countless bagels sliced and eaten leisurely over it, and "timeout" is a conscious strategy for the edition. "Our daily product is heavily focused on business and international news," Todd Haskell, vice president of advertising, digital sales and operations for the Times, told Wolter. "The weekender ... is totally along the lines of escape. ... You want to immerse yourself in the paper." The "off-the-news" New York Times Magazine is viewed favorably by 96 percent of its readers, the same favorability rating as Week in Review. And Travel, the Book Review and Sunday Styles are favored by at least 83 percent of Times readers. Though some consider the Sunday Styles section to be vapid, its mix of fashion, photos and the vicarious experience of other people's weddings, presented on a day of relaxation, enjoys a 63 to 49 percent advantage in "always/frequently" readership over its Thursday Styles counterpart.

In the digital age, newspapers have faced severe challenges, particularly in regard to their print readership.

But creating "buzz" has long been an arrow in the newspaper editor's quiver. "Water-cooler" stories can range from speculation about whether the Lakers will three-peat to the schadenfreude surrounding Lindsay Lohan's jail sentence. In the Media Management Center's lexicon, this particular association is called the "talk about and share" experience, and center studies show it to be one of the top three factors in driving usage of newspapers. (That's a significantly more powerful effect than for other media.)

In 2005, the London (Ontario) Free Press magnified the talk-about impact of a local crime story. Homegrown marijuana had been seized across neighborhoods of different incomes, and the resulting piece could have taken what professor Steven Duke calls "a traditional 'Pot busts span London economic spectrum' approach," with a couple of photos of raided homes.

Smart "talk-about" editing enhanced the buzz of the story, Duke writes in Medill on Media Engagement. "The front-page headline addressed readers directly in a style common to magazines, asking, 'Do your neighbours grow POT?' with a leafy sprig of cannabis hovering over photos of four raided homes spanning poor-to-rich neighborhoods," he writes. "A map inside covered two-thirds of a page, with keys locating the 40 busts by date and address.

"Imagine the kitchen-table and water-cooler conversations generated by this map, created with a little extra editorial effort."

Younger readers have long been the Great White Whale of newspapers, hard to catch and able to capsize circulation plans. In the late 1970s, I edited "sidetracks," a section of the Chicago Daily News aimed at attracting 20-something readers. Some 30 years later, the Chicago Tribune's RedEye stand-alone tabloid has gained traction, despite some media mavens dismissing it as news lite. Still, print dailies have struggled with their youth demographics for decades.

The "Original Paper" front page.

The "Original Paper" front page.

In 2005, the Media Management Center joined a team from the Minneapolis Star Tribune in an experiment to attract younger readers. The project concentrated on three motivating experiences that we now call "talk about and share," "civic" and "entertainment and diversion." "Experiences," then-Star Tribune Editor Anders Gyllenhaal said at the time, "are a way of converting traditional news judgment from editors' definitions (what's most interesting, what's most important, what you just can't believe happened) to readers' definitions of how they react (what makes readers feel informed, what gives them something to talk about, what tells them the paper is looking out for their interests)."

The "Experience Paper" front page.

The "Experience Paper" front page.

As Duke recounts, the paper's creative team recast front and inside pages around those experiences. On the front page of the "Experience Paper," a local pro-con debate and large illustration enlivened a wire service story on legalizing poker in Minnesota, replacing a piece about a woman who was trying to walk every street in Minneapolis. The political implications of an impending presidential trip were recast to ask locals: "Should America be Exporting Democracy?" A headline about the police wanting DNA from felony arrestees shifted from the straightforward "Broader DNA Collection Law Proposed" to "License, Registration and Saliva, Please." Quotes and headshots abounded.

The "Experience Paper" was favored by two-thirds of young respondents over an "Original Paper" developed through traditional news judgment and execution. It scored even higher with young readers for being attention-getting, more likely to be read, best story selection, etc. The number of times younger readers preferred the traditional approach was ... zero.

Today, Gyllenhaal is executive editor of TheMiami Herald, and his view is that "saying 'something to talk about' and 'that's a hell of a story' can be a semantic difference." But the experience-based approach is more than a change in labels; it tries, Gyllenhaal says, "to develop coverage that invites the reader and has impact."

The Star Tribune went on to adopt a more open redesign that drew on experience elements from a twice-weekly "World" section (the "civic experience") down to a quick-hit "Did You Know This?" which aimed to give readers something to "talk about and share." But the paper stopped short of a full-tilt experience redesign lest it alienate its older, more traditional yet dedicated readers. Given the warp speed of Internet-driven media, Gyllenhaal now feels that "some of what we were trying to do is not the right thing with current audiences." At the Herald, and elsewhere, "most younger readers are coming in through our website."

A paper outside the U.S. took the center's call for audience focus into the world. Las Ultimas Noticias, Chile's second-largest print and online newspaper, closely monitored responses to Web and front-page stories to understand the elements that concentrated reader interest, including what we would call "talk about and share." Consequently, print circulation held steady from 2005 to 2008, while the number of unique online visitors increased by half. It's "a newspaper designed to start a conversation among its readers," Editor Agustin Edwards told the International Newspaper Marketing Association in 2009.

"The advent of interactive [media] is a game-changer," Chicago Tribune Editor Gerould Kern told Medill professor Ellen Shearer. But if anything, the versatility of the Web gives media creators even more tools to fashion experiences that meet reader expectations. It can be used to energize the civic, watchdog function that the Tribune and other large papers are intensifying and promoting as both an intrinsic good and a competitive advantage. When Newsday investigated platform accidents on the Long Island Railroad, for example, its website powered a community conversation. Riders posted their encounters in a forum, checked the frequency of incidents at their local stops via a station map and viewed PDFs of accident reports. The online package continues to be updated, providing an ongoing experience that screams "civic."

Using experiences to drive usage requires constant reappraisal. The New York Times' cultural timeout may rule weekends today, but The Wall Street Journal is ramping up similar coverage. If the economy ever turns, consumers may bring more upscale taste buds to Food Network. has had to maintain a path toward precisely searchable solutions for practitioners — from cardiologists to ophthalmologists — who only occasionally share medicinal approaches. Applications for smart phones and tablet platforms will spark a whole new set of experiential contact points: Twitter didn't make a revolution in Iran, but it proved to be a powerful communitarian (or, as we put it, "co-producing") experience.

To earn audience loyalty, Northwestern research shows, media managers need to blend their creative instincts with an understanding of the experiences readers, viewers and visitors want. "When it comes to must-have ingredients for media success," Hearst Magazines Chairwoman Cathie Black says in Medill on Media Engagement, "understanding how experiences engage audiences ranks with formulating exciting ideas, apprehending deep needs and nurturing talented people." The devil is always in the details of execution, but perhaps this "third way" of mixing creative vision and research insights around experiences can empower those who love the media, transforming today's challenges into a powerful opportunity to serve and lead the committed audiences necessary for financial viability.

* In addition to Calder, Malthouse, Lavine, Nesbitt and Duke, the core experience development team included current Northwestern Media Mangagement Center Executive Director Michael P. Smith, Sue Calder, Todd McCauley, Limor Peer and Vivian Vahlberg. Professors Rich Gordon and Abe Peck lent online and magazine expertise to the studies.