News publishers need to bring the joy of serendipity to digital content

Avid readers often enjoy the experience of browsing through a newspaper or magazine and unexpectedly finding themselves immersed in an article they had no idea would be so interesting. Maybe a headline or photo caught their eye. And once they started reading, they couldn’t stop — even though the subject was something they previously cared little about.

It is called serendipity, and this kind of reading experience is inherently attached to paper, where each turn of the page brings new opportunities for accidental discoveries. Good publications provide the stories that audiences expect; great ones present the stories they didn’t know they wanted to read.

Digital media certainly has many advantages to enhance the reader experience

But with more people getting their news on mobile phones — with stories lined up one after the other in a hierarchy that is sadly monotonous — providing the serendipitous reader experience has become a real challenge.

If you read several daily publications on your mobile phone, you will quickly note many of the same stories are presented, often covered in the same way. The topics are chosen with the goal of attracting as many visitors as possible, so they are often unrelentingly mainstream. Since usage data is an important source for deciding when, for how long, and where to put topics on the mobile news feed, it often becomes amplified and news bubbles appear.

That is great as far as it goes. And occasionally you can stumble across a feature story placed prominently because someone decided it was worth promotion. But still, if you occasionally read the print or e-paper version, you will likely find stories in its pages that you never saw in the mobile offering. The stories are there, of course, but the structure and the very narrow parameters of the digital presentation, especially mobile, kept it from you.

Serendipity, however, should not be abandoned or ignored simply because it is difficult to provide in the digital news environment. It can differentiate a publication from the competition and is particularly crucial to general interest news media because of the obligation to cover the same main news stories that others are also covering.

Your audience may not be conscious of it, but surprising them with interesting and compelling stories they can only find from you provides a pleasurable reading experience. It is also a way to increase their loyalty and keep them coming back.

So how do you do it?

Firstly, the foundation of this experience is a genuine and deep empathy for the audience and their interests and needs. By putting yourself in their shoes, you can come up with topics that hit the spot, and surprise them with stories beyond the mainstream they might have found somewhere else. To uncover this empathy, the standard customer research is not enough; you can’t expect research alone to give you a list of topics. It is about diving deep into the world of the audiences with their values, hopes, fears, and motivation top of mind.

There will be different audience segments and target groups with different characteristics. For each segment, this deep thinking is important. Creating personas within the different segments, to make them more tangible, can help a lot. Visualising couples, or perhaps even families, that represent and describe the audience segment, can inspire content creators to find topics or specific aspects of a topic that are not mainstream but fit into the world of the audience segment.

Secondly, you need to present it to your audience so the chance they find it increases. This can be done simply with repetition, by keeping selected stories in the main news feed longer so more people can “stumble” upon it.

It can also be promoted, perhaps with a regular “editors’ favourites” feature, to let your audience know which stories you think are worth a look. Or perhaps a “six stories you may have missed” section. Or simply reward your excellent and popular feature writers by promoting them with in-house advertising and entry into award competitions. The “journalist as brand” not only benefits the individual but the organisation as a whole.

Thirdly, you need to know what kind of off-beat stories might appeal to your audiences and close the feedback loop to audience empathy. Thanks to the power of data and analytics, it is possible to keep track of the stories where people linger and provide similar themes and styles. You can’t quantify everything, but you can make the possibilities for serendipitous reading greater by knowing broadly what your audiences might like and if the personas pointed you in the right direction.

These stories are often not your usual content. They are the differentiators, and they help build your brand. While they may be quirky or unusual compared to your other content, they still have to reflect the unique qualities and values of your particular publication and brand. There should always be a place for writers to really rock out.

Put serendipity back into digital projects

You have to surprise people and make them curious, so when they think of your publication they say, “When I go there, I not only get what I expect, but I get what I don’t expect, and that really suits me.” Knowing your audience helps to provide them with unexpected pleasures, which builds loyalty and fulfills a basic mission: to make the time they spend with the brand well spent and valuable.

This article was also published on the INMA Media Leaders blog.