Cory Bergman

Cory Bergman is the General Manager of Breaking News, a mobile-first startup owned by NBC News Digital.


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What news organizations can learn from Facebook’s remarkable mobile turnaround

Just last year, Facebook was the punching bag of mobile. Users hated its mobile app, and investors fumed over the social network’s dismal IPO.

“Facebook is a bad investment,” read one Forbes headline, underlining the widespread doubts that Facebook and its pricey new acquisition Instagram would be able to monetize one of the fastest consumer shifts in recent history: the move from desktops to mobile devices.

Everything changed last week when Facebook revealed jaw-dropping mobile numbers: 41 percent of total ad revenue originated from mobile to the tune of $656 million in a single quarter. “Soon we’ll have more revenue on mobile than desktop,” CEO Mark Zuckerberg said, adding that the company has surpassed one million active advertisers. Facebook counted 819 million mobile monthly active users, and 219 million of them never visit Facebook.com on the desktop.

Facebook’s incredible mobile turnaround is packed full of valuable insights for news organizations. After all, mobile will disrupt journalism just like the Internet did more than a decade ago. But as Facebook illustrates, perhaps this second disruption can be avoided — if we move quickly and decisively.

It’s a recognition problem

Back in October 2011, Zuckerberg knew he had an emerging mobile crisis on his hands. Audiences were migrating to mobile in droves, but the Facebook app was slow and confusing. Instead of just fixing the app — they decided to rebuild it from scratch — he recognized the urgency to re-engineer his entire company to “get us to awesome” on mobile.

“Innovation isn’t an idea problem; it’s a recognition problem,” explains author David Burkus in a recent Harvard Business Review blog post. Zuckerberg recognized the app was a symptom of a larger predicament: Facebook was a desktop company in a mobile age. Mobile was just a product, not a mission. He didn’t know what Facebook should do to monetize mobile, but he recognized he had to create the conditions and the culture for the company to figure it out before it was too late.

The parallels are many in news organizations. Most suffer from a mobile recognition problem, engrossed with becoming “digital first” while the mobile tidal wave arrives. Just like Facebook investors a year ago, news executives have expressed an ongoing doubt that mobile will make money, taking a “wait and see” approach in making significant investments. Once the money arrives, then we’ll get serious.

As Facebook demonstrated, the money is already arriving, and the short-lived era of “mobile pennies” is over. Marketers say they’re increasing spending on mobile more than any other category — even more than social media and online video — according to a survey by the Association of National Advertisers.

However, Google, Facebook and Twitter already control 70 percent of mobile ad revenue, and none of their highly-targeted advertising resembles the traditional display ads that adorn news organization’s websites. The challenge is no longer the lack of mobile dollars but creating a “mobile first” culture to figure out how to compete for them.

“I’m sorry Mr. Zuckerberg. I was dead wrong to pan Facebook,” apologized one analyst after last week’s earnings call, mirroring the mea culpas across the financial world. We don’t need to make any apologies, but it’s time to say goodbye to all that mobile skepticism and recognize the future is already upon us.

Getting to awesome on mobile

In June of last year, Zuckerberg announced at an all-staff meeting that Facebook’s most pressing priority is becoming a mobile company. He embedded mobile engineers in every product team, holding product leads responsible for mobile performance. He overhauled the company’s recruiting to aggressively hire mobile talent, and he created mobile training programs for hundreds of his engineers.

Zuckerberg understood that mobile is not just a new design or distribution channel, but an organizational transformation. “You have to change the tasks at the very core” supported by resources to change an organization’s culture, explains David Skok, who co-authored a report with Harvard’s Clayton Christensen on media disruption.

Even at a thriving Silicon Valley startup full of employees in their twenties and thirties, Zuckerberg battled a desktop-centric culture. He backed up his “mobile first” declaration with his own behavior. He removed his desktop monitor from his desk. Whenever someone pitched him an idea, he would ask, “What does that look like on mobile?” At one point, he even blocked internal access to Facebook.com for a week, forcing employees to use mobile devices. He urged staff to ditch their iPhones for Android phones to more closely mirror the population of Facebook mobile users.

“A lot of this is symbolic, but the symbols matter,” Fiona Spruill, who recently left The New York Times after heading up its mobile efforts for several years, said via email. “You want the sports editor to kick off the Olympics planning meeting by saying mobile is more important than the desktop web or print. And you want to look at the mobile designs first — not after you’ve looked at the desktop versions. It’s all reminiscent of what happened with the transition from print to the Web.”

NBC (which owns Breaking News, the startup I work for) is hard at work on a responsive redesign of NBCNews.com. “The very first thing we focused on was creating a great experience for mobile users,” Shezad Morani, creative director of NBCNews.com, told me. “Focusing on the smallest screen real estate further forced us and our stakeholders to think about what is truly important in the experience and that has informed all other scenarios in a really healthy productive way.”

One of the best ways to evangelize the shift to mobile is sharing metrics with the newsroom. “Mobile is approaching 50% for some news sites, and it is critical that mobile numbers are shared as broadly as possible in the organization,” Damon Kiesow, senior product manager at the Boston Globe and Boston.com, explained via email. “This can be a challenge as mobile is often fragmented across sites and apps, including tablet and phone traffic to your regular www site. We are working to consolidate our sites around one reporting tool, and in the meantime create a consolidated report that includes a mobile share number.”

At CNN, editors discuss the latest mobile numbers in daily editorial meetings, comparing and contrasting how stories fare across desktop and devices.

“One thing we’ve learned is that the later in the day that breaking news happens, the more likely it is that the story will get more traffic on mobile than on desktop,” CNN Mobile Editor Etan Horowitz said by email. “We also show our mobile products on a big TV screen. To make it easier, earlier this year we permanently installed an iPad and an AppleTV so we can project our iPhone app, iPad app and mobile website during the meeting. By having the mobile products on display, key editors are able to see if a headline or photo needs tweaking and generally make sure our journalism looks great on all platforms.”

‘Mobile first’ and beyond

Newsroom culture doesn’t change overnight, and the clock is ticking. At Breaking News, we decided to become a “mobile first” company last year as our mobile visits soared over the desktop.

We have the luxury of being a small, independent team in its formative years, and we quickly revamped our performance goals, product plan, design process, editorial strategy and revenue products (we launched native advertising) to focus primarily on mobile. The result has been skyrocketing growth, and 85 percent of Breaking News’ visits now originate from a mobile device.

While the rest of us work on being “mobile first,” Facebook has already invented a new definition. “We talk about ‘mobile first’ in 2012, but we want to be ‘mobile best’ in 2013,” said Facebook Vice President Dan Rose earlier this year. Zuckerberg explained that his goal is becoming the best “personalized newspaper” on the planet. With more mobile reach than all traditional media companies combined and more than one million advertisers, Facebook has a tremendous head start.

The hardest decision a news organization will make is shifting attention and resources away from the desktop — which still generates the majority of digital advertising revenue — to a rapidly-emerging platform that redefines the game. Sound familiar?

As Facebook’s investors once feared, the desktop decline is right around the corner: eMarketer predicts desktop ad spending will peak next year and begin a long, slow decline while mobile continues to grow. Facebook is more than just a mobile case study; it should be a wake-up call for media companies and news organizations to aggressively re-engineer themselves for a new reality.

(Cory, Fiona, Damon and Etan will be hosting the mobile panel, “20 Tips to Turbocharge Your Mobile Efforts” at ONA 2013 in Atlanta. Cory is GM of Breaking News, which is part of the NBC News Digital Group. He is also a former member of Poynter’s National Advisory Board.)

Related training: News University is hosting a 2 p.m. ET Webinar today with Damon Kiesow. Sign up here to learn how to measure your mobile audience — and why it matters. Read more

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5 reasons mobile will disrupt journalism like the Internet did a decade ago

Imagine being able to rewind to the 1990s and help your news organization make key decisions — and create new habits — to help prevent a landslide of layoffs and enable the business to thrive on the Internet. That’s the opportunity we have today with mobile, the second tidal wave of change about to collide with the news industry.

To compete in this new world, news organizations must adopt a “mobile first” mindset and create sustainable mobile businesses. But many newsrooms believe that a “mobile, too” approach will be enough, as advocated by Business Insider’s Henry Blodget.

“The reality is that we live in a multi-screen world, not a ‘mobile world’ that operates parallel to a ‘desktop world,’” he writes in a blog post. “For some services, such as news and information, the laptop/desktop screen is still by far the most dominant screen. So abandoning that screen, or designing for another screen first, just doesn’t make sense.”

Blodget’s view is matched by many in journalism, but it misses the big picture. Here’s why.

1. A responsive design isn’t a mobile strategy

The mobile revolution isn’t about design and distribution as much as it is about revenue disruption.

Rewind to 1996 when newspapers enjoyed fat profit margins, and two startups made their debut on the early Internet. One company all but destroyed newspapers’ biggest revenue driver, and the other ended up generating more advertising revenue — most of it local — than the entire newspaper business combined.

Both Craigslist and Google created new business models enabled by the technology and scale of the Internet. In the same way, mobile is enabling new business models and use cases. Just like the mid- to late 1990s, we’re at the leading edge of the ensuing disruption.

Two big drivers of mobile disruption are geolocation and digital payments. Taken together, they have the capability to disrupt local advertising all over again. The right technology with the right execution will be able to drive nearby consumers into local businesses and anonymously track their actual purchases at scale, closing the loop like never before. No more guessing about ad effectiveness. For local media organizations, that has the potential to destroy your business.

There’s a narrow window of opportunity to invent — or invest and acquire — disruptive mobile technologies and business models that could eventually sustain, grow or even multiply your revenue. A responsive design is a must for today’s news sites, but it’s not a mobile strategy.

2. Mobile will not only surpass the desktop, but begin to erode it

“In the next 12–18 months, many news organizations will cross the 50 percent threshold where more users are visiting on phones and tablets than on desktop computers and laptops,” explains Fiona Spruill, editor of emerging platforms at The New York Times. “The numbers speak for themselves.”

It’s already happening at the Guardian during certain times of the day. Facebook announced in its last earnings call that it crossed the threshold. At Breaking News, where I work, mobile skyrocketed over desktop early last year.

Mobile will become the dominant screen as early as next year. If you’re planning and building a news experience right now, it’s highly likely that it will be visited primarily by mobile users over its life cycle. By extension, mobile first is already here.

But here’s where it gets really interesting. An increasing number of users are visiting brands solely via mobile devices. Over the last year, Facebook said nearly 100 million more people started using the social network only on mobile, never touching the desktop.  Google has reported four straight months of declines in desktop search as mobile explodes.

As news organizations cross the mobile threshold and beyond, this growing “mobile only” crowd will erode desktop audiences. Many news organizations will see desktop traffic flatten, and in some cases, begin a long decline.

3. The desktop decline will pressure news revenues

There’s a huge gap in advertising yield between desktop and mobile experiences: $3.50 versus $0.75 in average CPMs, according to Kleiner Perkins’ Mary Meeker. Mobile is growing so quickly, the explosion in available inventory is depressing advertising rates.  Ad agencies typically lag demand, which means this gap won’t be bridged anytime soon.

As audiences shift, the industry will be faced with more revenue pressure unless news organizations can create new mobile revenue streams to compensate. In many ways, this is similar to the shift from print to the Web. Just porting one business model to the other isn’t the solution. Traditional display advertising on mobile devices makes up a very small, declining fraction of total revenue.

And then there’s Google and Facebook. Taken together, they already control nearly 70 percent of all mobile advertising dollars, according to eMarketer. Empowered by geolocation, local search is a huge business. Google recently rolled out a new product that enables advertisers to bid on mobile searches that happen physically near their businesses (i.e. target your restaurant ad to anyone within a mile radius who searches for “restaurant” during evening hours.)  It’s hard to compete with such targeted products with traditional banner ads, and both Google and Facebook are working hard at closing that local advertising loop for the first time in history.

Some newspapers are beginning to see some traction from pay meters, which could hold promise for mobile subscriptions. But most news organizations are still in experimental phases on the mobile front, and there’s a very big dependency on Apple, Google and Amazon as apps continue to grow in popularity. Rapid experimentation and investment is a must.

4. News needs to solve problems

A study by Flurry in November found that the news category only accounts for 2 percent of total time spent on mobile apps. Social apps gobble up 26 percent. Facebook alone accounts for 23 percent of all time spent with mobile apps, according to Comscore in December. That beats every news organization’s app combined by a long shot.

As Facebook (and Twitter) grow in time spent – and since both are populated with plenty of news – they’re increasingly competitive with news organizations’ mobile experiences by sheer volume.

As a result, simply extending a news organizations’ current coverage into mobile isn’t enough. We need to solve information problems for our users and drive measurable revenue for our advertisers. Mobile is not merely another form factor, but an entirely new ecosystem that rewards utility.  Flipboard is a classic example of solving a problem (tablet-based content discovery) while The Daily is an example of a product that did not.

“The key insight from thinking about your business this way is that it is the job, and not the customer or the product, that should be the fundamental unit of analysis,” said Clayton Christensen, David Skok and James Allworth in a Nieman report. “This applies to news as much as it does to any other service.”

“The way to get startup ideas is not to try to think of startup ideas. It’s to look for problems, preferably problems you have yourself,” explains Y Combinator’s Paul Graham. “By far the most common mistake startups make is to solve problems no one has.”

5. Technology companies are mobile first and spending like it

Last year, Google proclaimed it was mobile first. Then Facebook. Then Yahoo. Twitter is already mobile first. These companies are investing at an unprecedented scale, acquiring mobile companies and beefing up development teams.

Meanwhile, there’s a new onslaught of “mobile first” and “mobile only” startups spanning communication, news, advertising and services. They’re attracting hundreds of millions of investment and some of the brightest minds in the business.

I don’t know about you, but a “mobile, too” approach worries me when the technology world is investing so deeply in mobile first innovation. Didn’t we learn this before?

This is why news organizations should shift to a mobile-first approach immediately. This doesn’t mean we ignore the desktop, but prioritize mobile over it — make mobile the default everything. When brainstorming a new product, start with a phone or tablet design and work backwards to the desktop. Set performance goals based on mobile performance over desktop. Conduct research that emphasizes mobile over desktop behavior. Put mobile numbers at the top of analytics reports. Compare competitive performance on mobile numbers first, desktop second. We need to immerse ourselves in devices and become a student of the industry.

We also need to talk less about social media and more about mobile. In many ways, social media has become the great distraction, diverting journalists’ attention away from radical change in our business. I’m guilty of this, too. Don’t get me wrong: social media is important, but let’s not forget that social platforms increasingly compete for audience attention and ad dollars. Growing our own mobile experiences should be the top priority.

Above all, we need to invest and experiment like never before. Whatever you’re spending now, triple it.

“When the Web was new, many of us went online with creativity and energy,” says Regina McCombs, who teaches mobile at Poynter. “Now, faced with even bigger potential and pitfalls for developing — or losing — our audience, most of us are getting by with as little investment as we can. That’s scary.”

If you’d like to learn practical ways to become a mobile first newsroom, sign up for Poynter’s upcoming seminar, “Mobile-first newsgathering and publishing.”  McCombs, Sara Quinn, Damon Kiesow and I will teach the course. There’s not much time to apply: registration ends this weekend.

Cory Bergman is the General Manager of Breaking News, a mobile-first startup owned by NBC News Digital.

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