New Research Says ‘Affordances’ Should Be Included to Make Content Clearer and More Actionable

While content creation seems to be all the buzz, new research from the University of Missouri School of Journalism tells us that our content needs certain “affordances”—such as hypertextuality, interactivity and genre—to help readers feel more comfortable and able to take action. They say that ‘contextual clues’ have been ignored in our print-to-digital transition.

Substack announced Monday that their publications now have more than 1 million paid subscriptions. AM&P member Future’s Golf Monthly announced that they are expanding their roster of content creators “with a number of high profile additions.” And the new B2B media company Workweek launched Wednesday with one of the founders saying that “we built a model to help [content] creators live better lives.”

Leaders for these organizations revel about the value of content in their companies, such as Golf Monthly’s requirement “to produce authoritative, trusted content at both scale and pace.” Substack co-founder Hamish McKenzie wrote in a post that “people are willing to pay for writers they trust,” and Workweek apparently longs to “elevate incredible creators and personalities.”

But beyond the hyperbole, what does content actually need to accomplish to be most effective in the B2B and association world? In new research, the University of Missouri School of Journalism explored the way people understand and make sense of and value the news they read on digital sites.The study leaned on psychologist James Gibson’s “theory of affordances, which argues an object’s properties inform what desired actions might be taken with the object.”

“When we apply this theory to a news medium, we are saying that each medium offers a lot of cues, such as design elements like color and use of hyperlinks,” said Shuhua Zhou, a professor of journalism studies and co-author on the study. “These attributes have the ability to allow people to do something or invite people to learn something particular about the news.”

Here’s a list of the eight affordances they found:

Genre, or use of digital cues, such as labels, to distinguish between different types of content. Sponsored content—which most readers accept if clearly set off—falls here. Readers want to know what type of story they’re reading, be it news, commentary, podcast transcript, webinar recap, etc.

Retrievability, or the ability to find previous news stories, such as with a simple keyword search. This

Importance, or visual cues such as a story’s location, headline size and word count, that allow readers to understand the level of importance of a particular news story. Fast Company starts their stories with a “XX MINUTE READ.” There’s a 2-3 deck headline and then a one-sentence or so subhead:

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Immediacy, or the ability for content to be updated quickly and to help lessen the confusion between new and old stories when sharing on social media. I’m always looking for the date on stories. Our colleague Tony Silber just wrote a commentary for MediaPost about a federal appeals court on Friday upholding the major rate hikes imposed in August by the U.S. Postal Service. Their date? “2 hours ago.”

Hypertextuality, or the ability to include additional digital information by linking to related articles or resources. Done well—opening another page keeps them on your site—links can be very valuable to the reader in trying to understand a story or the full call to action.

Convenience, or the ability to access vast amounts of digital information at one’s fingertips. Infographics will only get more and more prevalent in 2022—another new skill that media organizations need.

Adaptability, or user-friendly features that make it easier for one to navigate through digital news content and be able to read the news on multiple digital platforms. I just read a site’s article that may work on mobile but on the desktop it was way too big.

Interactivity, or the ability to share news articles with others, and create a community by interacting with comments left on an article.

“When these cues are missing or ambiguous, it can lead to reader confusion,” said Damon Kiesow, a professor of journalism professions and lead author on the study. “For example, readers may believe an opinion column is a news story, or assume an old article shared on social media is actually new. This may contribute to reduced trust and engagement.”

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