Cue-routine-reward. It is nice to think that we are all rational beings, planning out every decision. But neuroscience tells us that it is not so. Habits and emotions rule our behaviour. As marketers, we need to understand how and why people make decisions and capitalise on that. Satisfying audiences is as much about bringing them to the newspaper as it is providing readers with what they want when they get there.

Habits are ingrained — tough to build and even tougher to change. When we learn a new habit, our brain fires off blasts of electrical activity to generate and define new pathways to cement patterns that, once learned, can be automated and ignored. Our brains build habits to conserve mental energy.

Some habits are simple; I always remember to stop by a certain store when I need pop because I know they always carry the flavour I like. Seeing the storefront reminds me to ask myself if I need some. Other tasks are more complex, like backing the car down the driveway into traffic; there are many mini-tasks associated with this skill and as the brain puts all the pieces together, it is called “chunking.”

The key to developing a new habit, or changing a bad habit to a more positive habit, starts with the “cue.” Setting or changing the cue can lead to a change in behaviour. Commute times in many large cities have lengthened over the years; as people have had to leave earlier for work, they have chosen sleep over breakfast. No more sitting at the kitchen table reading the newspaper before heading out the door. Bang! There goes the cue for newspaper reading. Nothing to do with content...

So how do we establish cues to ensure that the routine we are interested in — read my newspaper — falls nicely into place?

The free dailies, in Canada, demonstrated that people still want to read a newspaper and follow the news; they just needed a new habit. To get public transit users and pedestrians to read their product, they stood in front of them and gave it to them with the hope that, once on the bus or subway, people with nothing now to do would read the newspaper.

And they did. People soon came to expect to see their hawker or newspaper box waiting for them before they started their journey. I have heard stories about readers calling their newspaper to find out why “their” hawker was not there in the morning.

Newspapers that traditionally focus on home delivery are rethinking their models and cues in print and online to respond to changes in their readers’ lifestyles and daily habits. They are setting up new cues to trigger the routine of “turning to their brand” for news whenever readers want it, no matter where they are. It’s a bit like setting out your running shoes at night so they are the first thing you see in the morning — time to go for a run.

Once the cues are in place, the routine follows. I read my newspaper for all the news and information I need throughout the day. The finale is the reward. The reward has to be worth the brain’s time and interest in setting up the habit. Once the loop of cue-routine-reward becomes intertwined and established, then comes the craving: cue-craving-reward. The content better be worth it!