News publishers need to reach the 74% of Americans on feature phones
Three-quarters of U.S. mobile phone owners use "feature" phones, but few media companies have focused on serving this audience — preferring instead to build apps and websites for trendier iPhone and Android devices.
That trend may soon be in retreat, as last week Facebook announced the international release of a new feature phone app designed to work on 2,500 handsets from Nokia, Sony Ericsson, LG and other manufacturers.
Ryan Singel reports that the app "allows users to sync their phone and Facebook contacts, scroll through photos, send Facebook messages and read updates."
The app is not as feature-rich as Facebook's iPhone app, but it appears to be functional and is clearly better than nothing. And the sheer number of people who own such phones points to the need for media companies to pursue a similar strategy.
Feature phones are still widely favored in many other countries, and even in the U.S. they outnumber smart phones three to one. According to comScore, 172.5 million people use feature phones in the U.S., and 61.5 million have smart phones.
At a conference this past weekend, I spoke with a number of newsroom editors and managers who noted this inequity and were interested in supporting feature phones in their markets.
Susan Mernit of Oakland Local was also at the event, and a number of us spoke with her about her organization's mobile strategy. As I noted earlier this month, Oakland Local co-founder Amy Gahran led a local market survey and found that 70 percent of the site's potential mobile audience was using feature phones. Gahran wrote:
“It became clear that if we hoped to use mobile to grow our audience and deepen our community engagement right now, we must focus on ‘lean’ mobile offerings that work well on limited feature phones. These are the phones which most Oaklanders have, and which they value so much that their phones are rarely out of reach.”
Smart phones are slowly gaining on feature phones in terms of new units sold, but it will be years before the ratio of devices in use is completely reversed. Until then, newsrooms need to work to find ways to serve this audience, while still preparing for the eventual dominance of smart phones and tablets.