People, not categories

Now to personalize the flow of information

Why send the same news to everyone? Is that the best we can do? The more newsrooms know about their users as individuals, the better the service they can offer.

Updated February 28, 2016
2 min read

In Geeks Bearing Gifts, Jeff Jarvis writes that “knowing people as individuals and communities so we can better serve them with more relevance … will be a necessity for media business models, a key to survival and success.” But knowing your users is just the beginning. What news organizations do with that knowledge — the personal experiences they are able to deliver — is the critical thing.

Information is abundant and easily accessed and easily stored in today’s hyper-connected world. This makes it possible to offer custom products for each user or allow users to assemble their own personalized bundle.

Some popular services that are built on this principle:

  • Google search results are customized to each user
  • Facebook curates a different news feed for each user
  • Amazon recommends additional items to each user
  • Netflix suggestions are based on the profile of each user

These platforms are saturated with content — they assume a world of abundance — but by understanding their users on a personal level they manage to narrow the options and make choosing a more pleasant experience. By gathering and analyzing user data they can design services around user profiles, rather than mass generalizations.

A product that is better targeted to individuals is a superior service.  It helps establish relationships and increase user loyalty. The payoff happens when someone has an “Aha!” moment because the service provides something new, different or unexpected. That’s a signal to users: you are saving them time in the hunt for relevant information.

To some degree, people with a social media profile or a smartphone have already built a personalized environment: they follow certain users, they download certain apps, they customize their experience just by using the device. Personalization is becoming a standard in the digital world, and news organizations will be left behind if they do not create a similar experience.

For an industry used to creating one product for everybody, however, embracing these practices has been a slow process. From a May 2015 Columbia Journalism Review article by Damaris Colhoun:

Even the savviest digital news natives are way behind Google, Facebook, and Amazon, which have been amassing data on users for years through demographic targeting. And the fact that modeling the news, predicting what a reader will click on or linger on next, is much more complex than modeling what book a user is likely to buy, doesn’t help.

There are some signs of progress — Colhoun points to journalists’ embrace of analytics and metrics to learn who their readers are — but there is a long way to go. Newsrooms need to design their services around user profiles that will provide the right content at the right moment in the right context. If they can do that, they may be able to charge real money for it.

News companies that are able to transform user data into unique experiences will become the most valuable. Sending everyone the same news was just a stage in the evolution of media. Journalists should welcome the opportunity to move beyond it.

Chris Lusk

Chris is interested in redesigning journalism as a service for the digital age. Before studying at NYU, he worked as a designer, developer and copy editor in newsrooms in Oklahoma, Texas and California.