Planning for Time-Shifted Reading

Dangling pocketwatch

Time is shifting. We need to keep up.

A couple of weeks ago, I talked about how longform content is a growing trend that merits consideration in higher ed. A topic often discussed in tandem with longform content is time-shifted reading. Sometimes called “DVR for words,” time-shifted reading is an increasingly popular option for content consumption.

Before diving into this post, you really need to read (or re-read) Rick’s excellent overview of how we as publishers must plan for content delivery, consumption and context. Sorry, but this is one piece of content you can’t time-shift. So, go ahead. I’ll wait.

…All set? Okay, let’s go!

Shift It—Shift It Good

Content discovery can take place at any time—at work, on the bus, in the morning while drinking coffee. It can be proactive (we search for coverage of a given topic), passive (we happen to find an interesting link on Twitter) or reactive (someone forwards you the Meet Content newsletter—see what I did there?). But content consumption does not necessarily occur at that same point or same moment. It may even happen offline (hello, cross-country flight).

As Cameron Koczon explained in his important A List Apart article “Orbital Content” in April 2011, our relationship with content is changing as it sheds its constraints. No longer fixed in place, online content is both more powerful and more challenging to wrangle. As Koczon puts it, time-shifting services are “transferring the responsibility of making content flexible from the publisher to the user.”

No longer fixed in place, online content is both more powerful and more challenging to wrangle.

“People don’t really want to have to be confined to a specific place, time, site or device to read content,” Read it Later founder Nate Weiner told The New York Times last February. This is the core principle behind the emergence of time-shifted reading apps and platforms. They all work more or less the same—through an app or a bookmarklet, you can save content to a queue for reading at a time of your choosing.

The two key players are Read it Later, with more than 4 million users, and Instapaper, with approximately 2 million. Readability, while not exclusively a tool for time-shifted reading, is also a popular option for time-shifted reading.

The creators of these resources and tools use the distracting contexts of the web, social media and mobile to drive content toward more focused spaces. As Instapaper creator Marco Arment told Poynter, “The best thing authors and publishers can do is give the world great content to read. Without that, all of this technology is pointless.”

The Need for Time-Shifted Reading

In a real-time world, Louis Gray contends, there is room (even a need) for time-shifted content consumption. The amount of content that actually demands real-time consumption is not as much as you might think, despite many people poo-pooing RSS readers (“Twitter is my Google Reader,” I’ve heard more than once. Harumph.)

“For most buckets of content, be they text, audio or video, the drive to be first and in the mix of the story as it is interpreted and curated, is not essential,” says Gray. He adds:

Advents in information and content sharing over the last few years have instead made “on demand” a reality, getting me what I want when I want it, not when someone else decides for me.

This is a commonly embraced concept when it comes to television. But television is different—it’s scheduled and predictable, for the most part. We typically don’t know what news or blog posts are going to pop up tomorrow, or even an hour from now—especially from sources we don’t habitually read.

We’re a little bit behind on this concept when it comes to web content, but we’re rapidly catching up. It’s a matter of survival, at this point—at risk of information saturation, we need ways to manage the flow.

The Shifting Sands of Publishing

Mobile, as usual, is changing everything. A few years ago, web reading happened at the desktop. But much like social media took a measure of control out of the marketing equation, mobile took a measure of control out of the publishing equation.

According to data gleaned from 100 million articles saved via Read it Later, “as devices become more mobile, it’s not only changing where we read, but when.”

Much like social media took a measure of control out of the marketing equation, mobile took a measure of control out of the publishing equation.

We are constantly discovering content throughout the day, but we are saving it to read in comfort during our free time, typically in the evening. The iPad is “leading the jailbreak from consuming content in our desk chairs,” according to Read it Later, with iPhones providing people an opportunity to fill the gaps in their day with content. This lines up with research that suggests posting content via social media in the evening.

As I said earlier, time-shifted reading and longform content are often coupled together like peas in a publishing pod. And to be sure, much longform content discovered at work or on the bus may be shifted for later reading. However, the two need not always go hand in hand, the Nieman Lab reported in December:

The evidence seems to be that people find time-shifting useful regardless of length, and that using these tools for really long work is more of an edge case than common usage. It appears the user’s thought process is closer to “Let me read this later” than “Let me read this later because it’s really long and worthy.”

What Does This Mean For Higher Ed?

We may have a range of audiences we are trying to reach (prospective students, parents, alumni) with a variety of content types (video, longform news articles, webpage content). Different users have different habits around content consumption. Thus, the more that we equip that content to be readable in a variety of unpredictable contexts, the stronger the chance it will succeed.

For example, a parent may sign up for our e-newsletter, which we send at 8 a.m. She may receive it while buzzing through email in line at Starbucks and see an article about the major her son is considering. She is not likely to read that article at that moment (they’re going to call her venti nonfat vanilla latte any minute), but she can save it to read later, perhaps that evening at home.

Here are some ways we can plan for time-shifted reading:

Enable Content Shifting

Your news articles may feature what is commonly known as the tool box: email, print, tweet this, post to Facebook. But these are no longer sufficient. Those actions are mostly focused on sharing with others—what about sharing with ourselves? We need to add options for time-shifting, maybe even for downloading as PDF or .epub. Read it Later, Instapaper and Readability all have options for this.

Plan for After You Hit ‘Publish’

The more we prepare for content discovery and consumption — rather than just the moment of publication — the more effective our content will be over time. We’re competing for screen time with everybody else out there, and the more options we provide for allowing our audience to experience our content on their terms, the more of an edge we will have in communicating our messages and ultimately driving actions. Longform or otherwise, our readers should be able to decide when and where they want to read our content.

Structure Your Content

At the 2011 Mobilism conference, Bryan Rieger of Yiibu gave a talk entitled “Muddling Through the Mobile Web,” where he talked about creating experiences for shifting contexts. He mentioned how services like Instapaper are using code and markup to structure content to be adaptive across contexts, while retaining meaning and design. Thinking about content like an application, Rieger says, can help us make it more useful. Structuring content will help us adopt new delivery channels and contexts more easily down the road, without forcing us to reinvent the wheel—which takes time and resources we may not have.

Keep Your Users Top of Mind

When we publish content, we do not deserve attention or traffic; we have to earn it by being useful, relevant and findable. Like Rick said in his post last April, understanding our users and how they consume content is critical. What types of content do faculty and staff want during the day at their desks versus weekends or evenings? When are prospective students engaging with us on Twitter, and when are they reading content on the admissions website? This will inform how we consider time-shifted content when planning content delivery.

Do you see practical applications for time-shifted content in higher ed? Where would you start? Or, have you started?

Photo by frield / Flickr Creative Commons

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About Georgy Cohen

Georgy Cohen is associate creative director, content strategy, at OHO Interactive in Cambridge, Mass.. Prior to OHO, she worked with a range of higher ed institutions, including stints at Tufts University and Suffolk University and as an independent consultant, on content strategy and digital communication initiatives. Keep going »

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