Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Tracking the Reader

Instinct and intuition are the stuff of the editor when it comes to deciding which books and which articles will resonate with a reader. As the circuitry of the web forges deeper into our daily lives the data 'exhaust' trails of our activity begin to offer real clues as to what interests us and what engages our attention. Often - and I will bet with increasingly frequency - the material that generates attention from readers is not what the editors expected.

I've long believed that content databases sold into the academic library and to the scholarly world could build a robust market catering to the average consumer. There's an in-bred bias against the level of interest and the intelligence of the average Joe in 'scholarly' material. This perspective seems to preclude many of the purveyors of journals and full text databases making their database content available to consumers. Increasingly this will change and better tools to aid consumers will be important in this expansion: Gale, for example, has begun to disaggregate some of their database content to make it available for consumers. I think this is an intelligent move in that they are leaving it to the end-user to decide whether the content is too advanced for them (and typically it will not be).

In the NYTimes, John Tierney takes a look some research that was under-taken by the University of Pennsylvania examining which types of NYT articles are most distributed via email:

The results are surprising — well, to me, anyway. I would have hypothesized that there are two basic strategies for making the most-e-mailed list. One, which I’ve happily employed, is to write anything about sex. The other, which I’m still working on, is to write an article headlined: “How Your Pet’s Diet Threatens Your Marriage, and Why It’s Bush’s Fault.”

But it turns out that readers have more exalted tastes, according to the Penn researchers, Jonah Berger and Katherine A. Milkman. People preferred e-mailing articles with positive rather than negative themes, and they liked to send long articles on intellectually challenging topics.

There is some discussion delving further into motivation and the article continues near the end with this:

The motivation for mailing these awe-inspiring articles is not as immediately obvious as with other kinds of articles, Dr. Berger said. Sharing recipes or financial tips or medical advice makes sense according to classic economic utility theory: I give you something of practical value in the hope that you’ll someday return the favor. There can also be self-interested reasons for sharing surprising articles: I get to show off how well informed I am by sending news that will shock you.

But why send someone an exposition on quantum mechanics? In some cases, it, too, could be a way of showing off, particularly if you accompanied the article with a note like, “Perhaps this will amuse, although of course it’s a superficial treatment. Why can’t they use Schrödinger’s full equation?”

All told, data begins to lead the way in the formation of content that readers will react to whether by reading it or sharing it within their social circle. More importantly, the data begins to document the wide interests of users and their faculty with material that in the past editors may have regarded as of little interest to their readers or deemed the material 'too advanced' for the average Joe. Happily, some of these walls are falling as data reflecting real experience shows the way.


Joseph J. Esposito said...

I agree wholeheartedly with your thesis.

Joe Esposito

David Worlock said...

Nice one , Michael . But we are definitely closer to the beginning of the movement to intelligently track and map user interests with their active encouragement than we are to the maturity of this development. And our definitions of those interests , what makes vertical markets , how to create "solutions" around multi-faceted individuals - all still in the Pre-Cambrian age ! David Worlock