By Amber Hinsley
St. Louis University

Throughout the years, when times were lean as well as when they were flush, media managers have struggled with two central questions: How do we keep the audience we have, and how can we grow it?

Researchers at the Medill School of Journalism recently published the book Medill on Media Engagement that points to some old—and new—avenues of understanding news consumers’ motivations for using media. After nearly a decade of research, their book provides detailed insight into the mindset of today’s media consumer—someone who is not a passive receiver, but a person who expects to interact with news & information and uses it to engage with others across a variety of platforms.

The four broad motivations for media engagement identified by the Medill researchers are:

· Information

· Personal identity

· Integration and social interaction

· Entertainment

Sounds similar to what we already know from uses and gratifications research, right? Most undergraduate communication theory books, as well as texts that examine the media’s influence on society, explain uses and grats as an approach examining the needs people seek to fill when they use media. (Examples of such textbooks include West & Turner’s Introducing Communication Theory and Burton’s Media & Society.)

What’s different in the Medill book is the authors’ focus on the engagement experience; their interest is in explaining media use through the audience member’s perceived relationship with the brand, whatever it may be. They identified more than 40 experiences that can fuel the public’s engagement with media, as well as deter their media use. The book focuses on the engagement experiences that solidify audience members’ relationships with media brands. Among the “new” contributions to our understanding of media-use motivations are the audience’s desire to:

· Produce/create information

· Interact with information

· Feel inspired

The take-away for media managers is that they need to develop a clear concept of their target audience and recognize what drives those people’s interactions with media. There is no single answer to the question of how to build an audience; the Medill book highlights ways in which managers can bolster their brand’s connection to news consumers, but first those media leaders have to concentrate on really understanding how the audience wants to connect with their product.

The problem, so to speak, isn’t with the audience, and it may not even be with the product. The problem is with managers and media organizations who don’t understand how users want to engage with a particular media product and how to help them do that.

(For a good summary of the book’s findings, go to this story in Miller-McCune written by Abe Peck, who co-edited Medill on Media Engagement.)