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How to Make Wanting News a Habit

On Sunday the New York Times had an interesting article about trying to persuade more Africans to use soap when washing their hands. The article dealt with marketing goods around habitual behaviors. Maybe people in the news business should take heed.

So instead of selling beer with ads filled with beautiful women, you make ads that show groups of guys having a good time. So they form a habit of whenever groups of guys get together that signals the attached habit of reaching for a beer.

Here is the underlying principle:

…studies revealed that as much as 45 percent of what we do every day is habitual — that is, performed almost without thinking in the same location or at the same time each day, usually because of subtle cues.

For example, the urge to check e-mail or to grab a cookie is likely a habit with a specific prompt. Researchers found that most cues fall into four broad categories: a specific location or time of day, a certain series of actions, particular moods, or the company of specific people. The e-mail urge, for instance, probably occurs after you’ve finished reading a document or completed a certain kind of task. The cookie grab probably occurs when you’re walking out of the cafeteria, or feeling sluggish or blue.

Here is my favorite example:

“Habits are formed when the memory associates specific actions with specific places or moods,” said Dr. Wendy Wood, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke. “If you regularly eat chips while sitting on the couch, after a while, seeing the couch will automatically prompt you to reach for the Doritos. These associations are sometimes so strong that you have to replace the couch with a wooden chair for a diet to succeed.”

In these distressed news days we often hear of the waning of the news habit, but what have these multi-billion dollar businesses done to figure out the cues to read the paper, watch the news or listen to it and then market around those cues just as a soap, detergent and junk food companies do.

It is fairly obvious when I get in the car, I turn on the radio. Car, radio, NPR news. Or each morning I wake and go for the New York Times. It used to be at my front door, then at the end of the driveway and now while I am in the New Hampshire mountains a two mile drive to the North Sandwich Store. This is a very strong habit, associated with waking and starting my day.

What are other cues that would lead to an automatic reflex for wanting news? News organizations, with university reseachers, should try to fine out and then build sophisticated marketing plans around those cues and habits.

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