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News Websites Should Target “Reward Seekers”, MU Researcher Finds

Website designers should strive for simplicity, invoke emotion to boost online revenue

March 05, 2013

Story Contact(s):
Nathan Hurst, hurstn@missouri.edu, 573-882-6217

As newspaper sales continue to decline, many news organizations are searching for ways to improve readership and revenues from their online presences. Now, University of Missouri researchers have found that news organizations should target readers with certain personality traits in order to optimize their online viewership. Paul Bolls, an associate professor of strategic communication at the MU School of Journalism and a 2011-2012 MU Reynolds Journalism Institute Fellow, has found that news consumers who have “reward-seeking” personalities are more likely to read their news online and on mobile devices, and to engage with websites, by leaving comments on stories and uploading user-generated content.

In a study accepted for presentation at the 2013 International Communication Association conference in June, Bolls surveyed more than 1000 respondents and placed them into two personality groups: reward seekers and threat avoiders. He found that reward seekers tend to use the Internet liberally, searching out entertainment and gratification, while threat avoiders tend to be more conservative, looking only for information that directly affects them. Bolls found that respondents identified as reward seekers were much more likely to engage with news websites as well as more likely to use mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets to consume news. He says this knowledge should direct news organizations to target these reward seekers.

“While threat avoiders may passively view news online from time to time, reward seekers are much more likely to visit news websites and, once they are there, stay there for longer periods of time,” Bolls said. “In order to maximize the amount of revenue they can earn online, news organizations should find ways to specifically target reward seekers and engage them with their websites. If news organizations can keep reward seekers on their sites and mobile apps, we have shown that they will willingly view many different pages, which will boost advertising revenue.”

Bolls also recommends that news organizations use “brain friendly” designs when building their websites. He says that the brain is engaged through motivation, so the most effective way to get readers to visit and stay on a website is to give them proper motivation, such as invoking emotion with stories and pictures. He also says that the simpler the design, the better.

“The brain can only process so much information at a time,” Bolls said. “Too much information can overload it and cancel out understanding and retention. Consuming news and advertising involves receiving information, adding previously held knowledge for context, and then storage of the new information. These steps need to be in balance. If a reader has to work too hard to find the stories they are looking for on a news site, it can defeat their brain’s ability to add context and store the new information for the future. Keeping it simple is key.”

The Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute (RJI) engages media professionals, scholars and citizens in programs aimed at improving the practice and understanding of journalism. Part of the University of Missouri School of Journalism, RJI collaborates with news and technology companies, professional associations, foundations and individuals to generate and test innovative models and technologies for journalism and advertising. Donald W. Reynolds Fellows spend an academic year at RJI, working with Missouri faculty, students and staff to develop new ways to gather, process, and deliver news, information and advertising.

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