Habit forming products for news

The newspaper industry has long mastered the art of habit forming; after all, they managed to associate the print newspaper with the morning coffee through an elaborate set of promotional tools and efficient distribution strategies. For digital, the importance of a daily habit is just as true, with recent research from Northwestern University in the US backing this up. In a study of over 13 terabytes of subscriber data from the Chicago Tribune, Indianapolis Star, and San Francisco Chronicle, the Medill Local News Initiative at Northwestern found that regular reading habits were the most strongly correlated with subscriber retention, more so than even time spent or number of stories read. In short, the study found that frequency is more important for retention than extent or depth.

This research has sparked new discussions on how publishers can work to develop habits among their readers. It’s something we’re especially interested in here at Twipe, which is why we’ll be bringing together leaders from across the news media industry in Europe and the US for the first conference focusing on habit-forming products for news. Join us on October 9th in Berlin as we learn from our peers at the 3rd annual “Digital Growth Summit”.

A framework for developing habits with news products

One of the foremost experts on habit formation is Nir Eyal, who developed the “hook canvas” in his book “Hooked”. This framework is crucial for understanding what can trigger certain behaviour to make return consumption more likely. This methodology can help publishers grasp why Facebook, Google, and the like have been able to develop addictive audience behaviour in this digital age.

For a habit to be created, first the reader must be triggered, either internally through their own desire or externally by an action taken by the publisher. Then an action follows, such as clicking a link to an article on Twitter. Actions can be facilitated by good usability design, which increases the ease of follow through. Next is the need for a variable reward, which is what differentiates the Hook Canvas from other feedback loops. Getting those shares and likes and retweets is what users crave, for example. It becomes an automatic thing that sends endorphin levels through the roof. Finally comes the investment from the user, such as sharing an article, inviting friends to share in this experience. This commitment can help to make triggers more engaging. We can look as well at the work of Tristan Harris and the “pull to refresh” functionality, which can be incredibly addicting.

While the Hook Canvas is the gold standard for habit formation, we see a need for the creation of a framework specifically for news media. This year we’re focusing on habits with news products, make sure to subscribe to receive our research early.

The importance of triggers for publishers

As we know, a habit is created through triggers, either internally by a reader’s own desires or externally through an action taken by the publisher.

Internal Triggers

To internally trigger readers, publishers need to meet them where they already are. One great example comes from The Guardian, which created an experimental edition specifically for underground commuters to ensure those with a spotty connection always have something to read. It works with the trigger of boredom during a long commute. The app “LabRdr” allowed readers to set the time and length of their morning and evening commutes, then they would receive a notification when their content package was ready. Knowing when the commute will take place allowed LabRdr to automatically update its content at the right time twice a day so that all the stories were pre-downloaded, while knowing the length of the commute allowed for enough stories to be included to fill the commute, so readers can enjoy the finishability aspect of edition-based publishing.  This new edition connected with the internal trigger of checking your phone during your commute.

Another common internal trigger is the desire to relax after a long day. The content desired while relaxing in the evening is different than the content for getting informed in the morning. That’s why Ouest-France created a digital-only evening edition, L’Edition du Soir. They even use the icon of a comfortable armchair to promote this idea of relaxation while reading. This new product as been very successful for them, and they recently celebrated five years, in which they grew from no existing audience to 2 million readers today.

Of course, we cannot forget the internal trigger of a morning update. For The Economist and Le Monde, a weekly and an evening newspaper respectively, they decided to leverage the desire of a morning update to reach new audiences, younger than their traditional products. They both created daily, morning digital-only editions. For The Economist, they even took the name of their new product from this trigger, calling it “Espresso” to align with a daily routine of news and coffee in the morning. Their readers have made these editions part of their daily routines, truly developing a habit for consuming the news in this innovative format.

External Triggers

Other publishers have tried to use external triggers, in our research we identified three main strategies: new products, push notifications, and email/newsletters.

Strategy 1: New products for new audiences

We have seen some publishers develop new products to better engage their readers, by developing habits in totally new audiences. Audio is one way publishers are doing this. The first example that comes to mind is The Daily from The New York Times, which has had great success with what they call their “new front page“. But successful audio examples aren’t just limited to the Anglosphere, Aftenposten, Norway’s largest newspaper, took a cue from this example. In early October 2018, they launched the daily podcast Explained, which gives listeners an in-depth look at one news story, told by Aftenposten’s own journalists. As Norway is a small market, they set a goal of 10,000 daily listeners, which they quickly surpassed and reached 30,000 daily listeners in the first three months. The best part though is the loyalty this product has created, with listeners creating a new daily habit. 80% of listeners come back every day, even when there is no promotion for the new content.

Strategy 2: Push notifications

Push notifications are a popular way to trigger readers and create habits, and one which we often hear in our previous research as a common strategy from publishers. Notifications make a reader more likely to actually open the news app, with one study finding that 58% of respondents open a news app directly from the notification.

Specifically for editions, push notifications are crucial for reminding users to read the new edition at a set time each day. For example, the 12 app from Tamedia sends a push to readers at noon alerting readers to the new edition. They found that many readers scroll through the stories once they receive the alert, then later that evening read the full stories that interest them. The push notification has helped turn reading the 12 app into a part of the reader’s daily routine – and they know this because when push notification do not get sent, the edition’s download rate plummets. That’s why at Twipe we encourage our customers to use the push notification technology for their ePapers.

Strategy 3: Emails/newsletters

Publishers also realise how important emails and newsletters are for engaging their readers — French financial newspaper Les Echos found that readers reached via email are more loyal than those who come via social media or search. Readers are more and more commonly turning to their inboxes as a source of news as well, with a Reuters report finding that 25% of Americans choose email as a starting point to read the news, while the French and Danes are close behind, at 21% and 24% respectively. Newsletters work particularly well for triggering readers, and thus becoming part of their daily habits, as there’s no need to be concerned with platform changes such as on social media.

As we know from our own research, there is a potential to reduce churn by 49% with (automated) newsletters. “JAMES, Your Digital Butler“, a collaborative Google DNI project with News UK, uses machine learning and AI to personalise the distribution of the edition, in terms of time, content, format and frequency. It is able to both create and send hyper personalised emails to trigger readers. We will be releasing further insights and results later this month, subscribe to receive the report.

In short, there’s been a lot of great work done on the topic of habit forming products for news, but there’s still plenty of knowledge that can be shared within the industry. Follow along all year as we further explore habit formation.


Twipe is a SaaS platform for edition distribution, creation, and analytics, used by leading newspapers across Europe. We are innovation leaders helping publishers like The TimesLe Monde and Ouest-France in the area of digital edition based publishing. Every month more than 8 million digital editions are downloaded from our platform.


Mary-Katharine Phillips
Media innovation analyst @ Twipe 

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