Media Magazine

The New Meaning of Audience Loyalty

Posted on the 16 October 2014 by Themarioblog @garciainteract

James G. Webster is a communication studies professor at Northwestern University. He is also the author of the new book, The Marketplace of Attention, a book I am definitely getting, based on an interview with him by Millie Tran, of the American Press Institute.

Readers of TheMarioBlog know that I often discuss the importance of how we approach frequency as we create new storytelling strategies for publishing through the media quartet.

A second topic of fascination to me--and one that is closely linked to frequency: loyalty.  

It isn’t what it used to, and I think that Webster’s input in this interview, clears the way for us to understand what loyalty means to news audiences of today.


-It is important that publishers become aware that users today have many options, and they (the users) sometimes don’t even know where to turn to to find those.

“[Publishers] certainly have to be mindful of what people are interested in and their preferences, but realize that their preferences are variable and that sometimes even when they know what they want, they’re not particularly good at finding what they want.”

“Even when people know what they want, they’re not particularly good at finding it.”

The concept of sharing

It’s not just that we SHARE what we like with others via email and/or social media. It is also that we SHARE our loyalties.  The days when one subscribed to one newspaper, or tuned in to one same TV news program in the evening, seem to have passed.

We have abundant choice, and we switch from one channel to the next.  I have experienced this very week in Amsterdam, as we have completed the transformation of De Telegraaf from broadsheet to tabloid, and soon embark into the same for digital.  Several readers have told us things like: “I come to De Telegraaf for its Financial section, but that is about it.”

Or, “I like the entertainment Privé section of De Telegraaf, but prefer Sports in another newspaper or website.”

I believe that in the digital world, it is quite easy for us to become our own publishers, reading the sports section of one publication, while turning to another for culture and a third for local or world news.  There is plenty to go around.

Webster notices this phenomenon, too:

“You would think that this superabundance would facilitate freedom of choice, but people have to develop strategies for coping with all of that abundance.”

And, more importantly, as Webster observes, there may be loyalty to a subject, but not necessarily to one channel carrying that subject:

“People who use Facebook use a bunch of other websites and they probably watch television and read other things online, so they’re all over the place.”

The concept of Pull and Push

Webster refers to the methods of Pull and Push to build audiences: push is when the media seek out the users and pull is when users seek out media.

“In a world with anywhere, anytime media consumption, people are liberated to pull whatever they want. And along with that is you get people who sing the demise of push media.”

What's the role of serendipity?

This one is one that comes up in all of my workshops with newsrooms globally.  Isn’t it wrong if we only give our audiences what they want?  Whatever happened to the old and tried  old general newspaper formula of offering surprises?
Why not be serendipitous?

It’s become more difficult to do so, because we measure success by loyalty, and we equate loyalty with a brand that satisfied with what we want.  A conservative thinking person will be lured to Fox News, for example.

Webster also deals with the question:

“….what if we didn’t always give people what they were predisposed to want? What if we could build a little bit of serendipity into recommendations? Wouldn’t that be a good thing?

“And there you’re kind of in a dilemma. The big picture is a little bit of serendipity is probably a good thing so we don’t default to what’s most comfortable and we’re exposed to different ideas and so forth. But pragmatically, if I was using a search engine or a recommender system that fed me a lot of serendipity my reaction would be it’s not giving me what I want. It’s supposed to make my life easier, not force me to weave through these wildcards.”

The takeaway

It’s difficult to define audience loyalty today, and even harder to establish patterns that lead to loyalty.

Today’s audiences may be loyal to us for 65% of their time, let’s say, but they will also be loyal to our competitors. It’s all a click away to go from brand A to brand B.

Those audiences know what they want, seek it and reward THOSE (plural) who offer it.  At some level, they also crave a bit of serendipity.

What makes our job difficult today is that we must be careful with how much of a serendipitous dose we offer.  Too much and we lose our loyalty base. Too little we have failed to surprise.

Webster makes it clear: 

“With most forms of mass media, the traditional way to think of audiences was as a mass audience. The formal definition of a mass, from sociology, is that it’s composed of  individuals who are basically anonymous and act independently.

“The big sea change in digital media, particularly with the advent of social networks, is that people are less and less anonymous and they can act in concert.

The audience is more focused, responsive and engaged with us and with others.  Their loyalty is there but can be measured differently from how we measured loyalty 20 years ago.

Their sense of frequency is also tied to loyalty: they may visit us more frequently than daily, and they may even have different expectations for each of these visits.

Again, loyalty and frequency playing havoc with those who plan content and try to establish their brand in the digital age.

The Webster book should help us understand it all.

For More Information:

The new meaning of audience loyaltyThe new meaning of audience loyalty

The forces that shape audiences online: 9 good questions with James Webster

​The Market Place of Attention

TheMarioBlog post #1599
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