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Michael Sheen
| 22ND JAN 2024

Zeno Thinks: The Tipping Point

With the distorting effects of the pandemic out of the way, we can now say that at some point in the last four years we passed a tipping point in how we interact with the media: decisively away from editorially-curated media towards algorithmically-curated media.

That is, from platforms with an allotted, finite space or time to fill, to platforms designed to fill as much of our time as possible.

Around 2021, the global proportion of people who got direct access to news via apps or websites was overtaken by those who prefer to go via social media, and that gap has widened. Other measures tell the same story – and the younger you are, the less likely you are to go direct to the news source.

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[Source: Digital News Report 2023, Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, University of Oxford: here]

Our capacity to consume more content has not increased – we still have the same 24 hours in a day. It’s just how we do it and the range, and number, of sources that have changed. For example, Ofcom data shows we are, on average, watching half an hour less video a day than five years ago. Live TV, meanwhile, has plummeted by nearly an hour as other sources of moving images fill the gap.

This isn’t, to use a cliché, “the new normal” – because it’s not particularly new. It’s just what’s normal, and it’s permanent. The same dataset shows content consumption volumes broadly stabilising, with the rapid rise of TikTok stalling, for example. The lingering sense that social is somehow a secondary or lesser medium needs to be abandoned.

Consequently, trying to penetrate users’ spheres of attention is a battle. TikTok has no business news editor with an interest in electric vehicles that you might pique, for instance. (Even if it did, the UK overwhelmingly prefers to read its news online.)

And everyone else is battling for the same eyeballs, including newsbrands themselves. Many therefore play to what they know their audiences will already give their attention to - understandably, as attention is their financial lifeblood.

Looking ahead, AI-written SEO content and more paywalls to defend copyrighted material from bots will make grabbing human attention even harder. And when we do have attention, it’s debatable whether there’ll be trust. Only a minority of people, on average, see content on social as accurate, trustworthy or high quality.

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[Source: News Consumption in the UK 2023, Ofcom]

So what’s a brand to do?

The best comms ideas have always happened where what matters to the audience, what matters to culture and what matters to the brand meet, in that order of importance. Understanding this nuanced context is now crucial: without that audience and cultural resonance, ideas just won’t travel. This requires humility, empathy, and no little bravery.

Don’t think discrete channels. Social influences editorial. Editorial still influences social, although now often indirectly - informing a creator’s opinion, being shared via a screenshot in a reel, but not driving a click to a website. So accept that stories will travel beyond your control, and often your ability to measure.

And think laterally: Where else might you capture your audience’s attention?

Full report here