The Reading Habit (Continued)

Further thoughts on the effects of daily habits on media consumption and a reason for the decline of RSS

Yesterday I posted a theory on why a site with a regular posting schedule (preferably daily) has a larger readership than a site with comparable quality content but where the articles are posted less frequently and at variable intervals. My thinking is that the daily posting schedule creates a habit for the readers who integrate the site into their daily routines.

A variable payout (like in gambling slot machines) creates addiction, and the same principle actually works here as well with the variable payout being not whether there will be a post today but whether the post will be any good. In other words: we check a site daily knowing there will be new posts, and whether or not today we’ll read something great keeps our interest up.

Generally, the following two ways are used to drive traffic to a site:

  1. Get random people to click on irresistible headlines.
  2. Get readers to subscribe and deliver new content to them.

The first relies on magnetic headlines to pull the visitor in. It can be effective but unless the content is really good the visitor doesn’t have a reason to come back. Sites churching out empty, sensationalist content rely on the strength of the headlines to keep pulling people in, and they have to do it every day to keep the traffic coming.

If your content is good enough you can offer the second option: get people to subscribe to your site and have all the new content delivered to them. This eliminates the need for sensationalism and magnetic headlines as your daily traffic will depend on the number of subscribers rather than on the number of people you can get to click on your links on social media.

Subscriptions will only really work for sites with regular schedules because what people who subscribe really want is not necessarily your content but an easier way to manage their daily habit. So in a classic example, if people’s daily habit is to read the newspaper, they will subscribe to it so it is delivered to their door instead of having to go out and buy it every day. Today, with paper well on the way to becoming obsolete (at least for news), visiting a site is all that’s needed. Apps may work, if the app delivers a better experience than a site. A subscription must be way of streamlining the daily habit of checking a publication rather than ensuring they are up to date with everything new.

This could be why RSS usage has declined.1 RSS works if your readers have a habit of checking RSS. Many do. But if the visitor doesn’t care about RSS and only wants to consume a certain site then the RSS step becomes unnecessary. All they need to do is check the site every day. They know there will be new posts every day because the site has a schedule – they don’t need an app to tell them this. They also don’t want to necessarily keep track of all the posts because their routine isn’t to consume all the content but to check the very latest thing. RSS helps people ensure they don’t miss a post, but people who have a habit checking a specific site every day don’t care about missing a post, they just want to read the latest post.

This is also why many people say Twitter is their RSS replacement. Twitter doesn’t actually do what RSS does – i.e. keep track of all new content – it merely shows you the very latest stuff people shared. People who consume content on Twitter aren’t really interested in making sure they don’t miss anything interesting, they just have a daily routine of checking for new stuff. Twitter’s feed is ideal for this. There’s no “old” stuff, just a list of the very latest, and the frequency of posts is rapid enough to make sure there’s new stuff there all the time (if not, users will just follow more people). People who were using RSS and switched to Twitter weren’t really using RSS, they had a habit of using an RSS app like Google Reader, and when that went away they changed the means of their daily social news consumption to another app: Twitter.

When people subscribe to a site, what they don’t necessarily want is a way to ensure they get all of your content, but rather, a good way to integrate the consumption of your content into their daily routine. As RSS usage is declining and people are switching to social media streams dominated by other people’s content it may be advantageous to have scheduled streams of content on your own site. If you want to build readership through the more durable and long lasting “subscription” method rather than having to chase visitors through the read-and-forget (or click-and-forget) magnetic headlines method you have to give people a reason to come back, you have to turn it into a habit.

It seems that as long as there is a daily posting schedule the length of each post is actually irrelevant. For example, Seth Godin posts daily on his blog. Though not always, most of his posts are short, a few sentences long. Some even as short as a couple of sentences. Godin doesn’t spend time turning his ideas into essays – he grabs the essence and publishes it on the blog. Although the content is very good, I would guess that it’s the regular schedule that is responsible for the extremely large readership (yes, of course he is also an established author, but a book audience does not guarantee blog audience, and he definitely commands an audience on his blog).

To make myself clear: a regular schedule will not replace the need for good content. Nobody will read garbage. What matters is the possibility of having something truly great every once in a while. That possibility is what will keep people coming back. It’s the reward that strengthens the habit. The quality of every other post matters less because the readers don’t have an obligation to read them. If today’s post doesn’t interest them, they can come back tomorrow. Perhaps eventually if nothing interesting is posted in a while they will leave elsewhere, but this doesn’t matter so much because you either have something valuable to say or you don’t – quality isn’t something that can be scheduled, it’s the result of work. Exposure to your work, however, is something that can be controlled and increased.

As a final note, I think it’s worth mentioning email. Email is a little different to the above because a newsletter need not be sent out daily to be read. In-fact, a schedule is probably irrelevant in the case of email because people aren’t going to unsubscribe when they don’t receive something in a while – they’ll unsubscribe when they receive stuff they don’t want to read. In this way it is actually important not to send out mediocre content via email as this can lead to people unsubscribing. Email itself is already a habit, so content delivery via email takes advantage of a pre-existing routine. Email also has an advantage over something like Twitter in that people generally try to read all of their emails, not just the few latest ones at the top.

  1. I think another big issue with RSS is that it’s a technology not an application of technology – people don’t use technologies, they use apps. Presenting people with RSS feeds doesn’t make any sense if they don’t know what they are. People who haven’t used RSS have to first realize that they need an app to get the feed, then they have to choose the app, then set it up. It’s too confusing and too much work. RSS should never have been a consumer facing tech – all that’s needed are “website subscription” apps. The specifics of how content is updated should remain between app developers and publishers.
October 2014