10,000 steps to audience engagement


Every publisher wants to find better, smarter ways to engage with audiences. I’ve discovered a new programme that is so powerful it keeps its audience engaged 24 hours a day.

It even works during sleeping hours. It appears to be pretty simple, until you realise it takes 10,000 steps to get to the goal and then you need to start all over again. It’s powerfully addictive but perfectly legal. On top of all that, it is actually good for you, too.

Before I start sounding like a pitch man on a late-night infomercial (“Wait, there’s more!”), the breakthrough is a remote fitness monitor called FitBit. Think of it as a very smart digital pedometer that tracks your steps taken, flights of stairs climbed, calories burned, and levels of activity achieved.

The technology is truly amazing. The FitBit is a small, wearable Bluetooth device with a three-dimensional accelerometer to sense user movement, plus an altimeter that measures elevation gain to count floors climbed.

It can even measure sleep quality: how long it takes you to fall asleep, how often you wake up, and how long you actually sleep. The daily goal is to walk or run 10,000 steps and 10 flights of stairs, but the objective is a healthier you.

Game on. Our competitive nature is a basic instinct.

The FitBit experience is a perfect example of the power of gamification. It’s a round-the-clock game where FitBit users are highly motivated to achieve a personal fitness goal and compete with others for intrinsic rewards and bragging rights.

My wife and I both got FitBits for Christmas. We were already in a friendly competition over who could get better gas mileage when driving our Prius hybrid.

The FitBit upped the ante.

Now, when we ask each other, “How are you?” the response is more likely to be about progress toward a FitBit step goal. Doing something that is good for you combined with social competition is a healthy addiction.

How can news media publishers learn from FitBit? Well, what if the objective were to achieve a healthier brain?

Neuroscience research into aging and Alzheimer’s disease has made the case that our brains can atrophy just like a muscle. We also know that daily mental exercise is a key to maintaining a healthy brain.

Seniors doing crosswords is a cliché, but it is a good example of mental exercise with newspaper content that really works. Reading has also proven to keep the mind active, and staying current with the news further stimulates the mind.

This is not only a senior citizen issue. Mental exercise matters, whether you are just old enough to get your driver’s license or old enough to have it taken away.

Gamification and competition work best with real-time metrics. Imagine if we could measure daily levels of mental exercise as well as FitBit measures physical exercise. FitBit smartly packaged up existing technologies at an attractive price point.

The equivalent to a 3D accelerometer for measuring brain health might be a portable brain scanner. I can picture it now: a headband with a built-in EEG that measures your brain activity and converts it into a meaningful and motivating number.

I think I’ll call it the “BrainBit.” (Now I just need to find some smart engineers to help me build it...)

If people were motivated to reach daily brain fitness goals, wouldn’t they then gravitate to the daily newspaper to load up on nutritious content? Wouldn’t they do whatever they could to make their brains healthier so they could feel good about their progress and also compete with others?

I don’t know the science, but an immersive reading experience must be a more intensive brain exercise than watching TV or scanning tweets.

As we look for ways to better engage audiences, news media publishers can learn from innovations such as FitBit. Early experiments in news gamification such as loyalty programmes and digital activity badges are good first steps.

Sustaining audience engagement for the long term will be much harder and might even take 10,000 steps to get there.

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