Friday, August 29, 2008

The importance of getting inside your reader's head

A recent study of negotiating strategy showed that dealmakers who can see the world through the eyes of the person they are negotiating with are more likely to arrive at a mutually acceptable deal that people who don't.

The focus of the study was to figure out whether it was more important for negotiators to focus on the head or the heart. The answer was the head. Specifically, the study revealed the importance of understanding exactly why your opposite number is at the table and what they really want out of the deal.

The study holds important implications for people trying to figure out journalism's way forward.

In any deal, there's a buyer and a seller. Same thing in journalism. We journalists--or, rather, the organizations we work for--are the sellers. Our readers are our buyers. The deal we are negotiating is: "Give us your eyeballs" (so we can sell them to advertisers). The products we're selling are our stories. The currency our readers pay with is their time. According to the new study,
the better we understand why our readers might want to give us their time, and consequently their eyeballs, the more likely we are to get them.

This is a tough question for us journalists. Traditionally, we've assumed that readers open up the newspaper "because they want to be informed." I would suggest that's not necessarily the case. There are myriad reasons why readers used to open the newspaper:
  • To feel "in control," presumably by learning everything that had happened in the last 24 hours
  • To avoid looking foolish when current events discussions come up
  • To feel the thrill of seeing your team do well, or the agony of their defeat
  • To feel "in control" by reviewing the latest stock prices and getting feedback confirming that their stock strategy was on track
  • To laugh, by reading the comics
  • To experience the excitement of learning about exotic countries far, far away
  • And so on....

I don't know what the actual answer is. But news organizations need understand exactly what it is readers hope to get in return for the time they give us. That way, we can shape our offerings--our products--so that readers get what it is they want.

One caveat: When I start talking like this, friends who've never left the world of traditional journalism respond as if I'm suggesting this means we should consider selling all kinds of stories that aren't "proper" news. I'm not. I'm suggesting that we understand our readers' motivations and then shape our stories so that our readers get out of them what they're looking for. You can still report on town council meetings. But perhaps we'll learn to shape those stories in ways that are more enticing to readers than the formulaic and--let's be honest with ourselves here--often drearily boring approach we've used to report on civic life in the past.

Photo courtesy of frankblacknoir. Creative Commons license.

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