Tracking Print and Online Reader Behavior: The Poynter Institute’s Ground-Breaking Study

As technology companies continue to influence the mode in which information is disseminated, print media practitioners have found themselves on the defensive, searching for more innovative ways to deliver the news. To better understand what attracts readers and to dispel myths about how to keep readers engaged, the Poynter Institute’s EyeTrack07 Project conducted a study that scientifically analyzed readers’ eye movements while they read various forms of print and online publications.

The Poynter Institute, a school devoted to teaching and upholding the professional and ethical standards of journalism, conducted the eyetracking study with the intent to identify differences and similarities in the way readers navigate and respond to formatting elements in print and online media. To examine and record reader behavior during the data collection process, each research participant wore eyetracking glasses in which two miniature cameras were installed. One camera recorded eye movement while the other recorded the material on the page being viewed.

In need of content to conduct the study, the Poynter Institue partnered with the St. Petersburg Times and the Minneapolis Star Tribune to provide broadsheets; the Philadelphia Daily News and the Rocky Mountain News to provide tabloid pages; and sptimes.com and startribune.com to provide online content. The Poynter Institute also partnered with the University of Florida, whose researchers and students helped record data from the eyetracking cameras. Finally, Mediamark Research, Inc. prepared the final report based on their analysis of the data collected.

Equally important, data was collected from 582 unique readers. The participants were recruited by the partnered news organizations and were screened to ensure they were diverse in age and gender. 49 percent of the sample were men, 50 percent were women, and 56 percent of the sample were between 18 and 41 years of age, while 44 percent were between 42 – 60 years of age. The participants were informed that they would be needed for a 90 minute period, but they were not told how long they would be required to read. To minimize the amount of data collected and ensure that readers’ experiences were consistent, they were asked to stop reading after 15 minutes.

Some of the findings exceeded the researchers’ expectations, while others confirmed what was already suspected. Among the several areas of engagement points examined between the publication and the reader, several findings stood out and are considered key findings in the Poynter Institute’s EyeTrack07 Project.

When examining reader depth, or how much of a story was actually read, the data collected suggests that regardless of the form, more text was read in stories that were shorter in length. However, online stories fared much better than broadsheet and tabloid stories; participants that read online stories read an average of 77 percent of the text for the stories they chose. This was a significantly higher rate than that of broadsheet and tabloid story readers. Broadsheet readers read an average of 62 percent of the stories they chose, while tabloid readers only read 57 percent of their stories.

Similarly, when examining which stories were read in completion, online stories fared much better than broadsheet and tabloids stories. Researchers found that 63 percent of the online stories read by participants were read in completion. Only forty percent of broadsheet stories, however, were read in their entirety, while only 36 percent of tabloid stories were read from beginning to end. Researchers concluded that online stories fared better because news online delivered in real time and tends to be shorter in length.

The Poynter Institute was also interested in learning how much the average reader remembered after reading a story and if the format of the story impacted the information the reader was able to retain. To do so, sets of print and online prototypes were created; three prototypes of each form were created, each contained the same content (facts, photos, and graphics) but each of the three were designed and formatted differently. Data collected from readers’ eyetracking cameras demonstrated that alternative story forms which included timelines, Q&As, lists and fact boxes were most effective in helping readers retain facts from the stories. Moreover, the findings from this particular study also suggests that the alternative story forms attracted readers at a higher rate than did text in regular print. These finding helped the Poynter Institute conclude that stories with shorter text and visual aids were more attractive to readers.

Several other key findings have helped the Poynter Institute communicate reader behavior to journalists and editors. When examining reader sequence, or the order in which the elements in print and online publications are viewed, headlines and photos were the initial engagement points for print readers, whereas online readers went for navigation. Also, exclusively in print, readers were more engaged in lead and packaged stories than others; briefs fared well when presented with photos; and visual aids brought above average attention to teasers. As it relates to photos and graphics, large and very compelling photos received more attention than smaller staged photos and mug shots, and naturally, color photos were more popular than black and white. Likewise, infographics such as maps and weather graphics received more attention when presented in color. On the other hand, the bigger-the-better approach may not work as well for advertisements. The Poynter Institute found that advertisements that consumed an entire broadsheet received less attention than advertisements that were accompanied by story text.

The EyeTrack07 Project is the largest study the Poynter Institute has conducted to better understand reader behavior and to better assist print media practitioner in the their quest to deliver news in its most compelling forms. From a high level, a lot of the data suggests that larger photos, less text and creative packaging are now mainstays in the dissemination of information in print, but online media is definitely more appealing and currently has the competitive edge.