10 Questions to Help You Craft a Mobile Strategy (Before It’s Too Late)

It’s mid-morning in the mobile age, which has brought a lot of comparisons to 1995 and the first days of news on the Web. There are similarities: a new platform and a new way to think about content. But it took years and years to figure out the Web, while mobile is moving much, much faster.

“If I’m a local news outlet, I better get on board, because CNN and ESPN are coming in, scraping news, and serving it on their own. Local outlets need to fight back,” said Wade Beavers, CEO of DoApp Inc. “It’s an exciting time for those outlets, but probably pretty scary, too.”

In fact, last week ESPN announced that it is launching mobile apps for Dallas, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles and New York City. Nothing’s more local than sports. Are you prepared to lose that part of your brand?

If you haven’t gotten started with mobile, you need to. Right now.

“I guarantee today that if you don’t have a site that is optimized for mobile, someone somewhere is putting your URL into a mobile device,” said Annette Tonti, CEO of MoFuse. “The problem is, it’s really not usable. What you’ve done in the past, squished into a one- or two- inch screen, doesn’t work very well.”

Fortunately, there are simple ways to get started. Unlike the early days of the Web, there are a lot of tools — and companies — that can help. Each of the executives at mobile development companies I talked to — DoApp, MoFuse and Verve Wireless — has different ways of working with news organizations, and each one said the same thing: You need a plan.

So with their input, here are 10 questions to consider as you build your strategy.

Who is your audience?

Mobile is local — much more so than the desktop Web. Spend time researching your local market. What handsets do people own? Who are the largest carriers? What is the smart phone penetration in your area? My Mobile Media co-blogger, Damon Kiesow, suggests wandering the aisles at a local wireless store to see which handsets they’re stocking. (These charts may help, too.)

You may even be able to find information in your own Web analytics, since most news sites already get 10 to 20 percent of their traffic from mobile, according to Tonti.

What does your audience want?

It’s early yet, but here’s what we know: Mobile users like local information, video, breaking news and weather. Tonti said one TV station moved the radar to the top of its mobile site after finding that weather was far and away the most trafficked feature.

Mobile users are socializing, multitasking, and passing time. And they’re conscious of data rates and battery life, so they want it fast.

What will you provide?

Take inventory of what you have and how it’s organized. Do your RSS feeds work well? Are they well-organized? Do you geocode your feeds so that you can deliver content based on a user’s location? If not, what would it take for you to do that?

Do a competitive audit of your market. What are other news providers doing, and how successful does it appear to be?

Arthur Howe, CEO of Verve Wireless, said to remember the importance of video and photos on mobile, along with sports scores, traffic and coverage of major weather events.

His main recommendation? “Don’t be afraid to experiment, experiment, experiment.” Add social features — such as sharing via Facebook and Twitter — and ways for users to contribute content.

This will be an iterative process. Any site you create now will — and should — change as you see what draws the most traffic, Tonti said.

How will you make money?

There are so many options: advertising, charging for an app, charging a subscription to use a free app, selling by the issue (which is mostly being tested on the iPad), and sponsoring sites and apps.

National ad networks are coming together, and Apple is set to launch iAd, its mobile advertising service. The Associated Press is working with Verve to create a white-label content and advertising solution.

The folks at DoApp recommend you think local. They’re developing “adagogo” as a simple way for local advertisers to create mobile ads and choose the geographic area where the ad will be displayed.

Moreover, you should consider how your mobile site will fit into any current or future registration and paid content strategy.

Who needs to be involved?

Most likely you’ll need a team of folks from news, sales and technology. Howe recommends that one person be accountable for mobile products. That person must have the support of the chief executive and be considered in high standing among all the departments involved.

What technologies will you use?

This is the big, complicated question. You’ll have lots of decisions to make here. The first one is tough: You’re going to develop a mobile-friendly site, but then what? Are you going to create native apps? For which platforms?

You’ll find diverse — and strong — opinions on how you should invest your resources.

At Mofuse, the strategy is to get clients up and running as soon as possible and modify from there. “We’re not anti-app; we chose to go after mobile Web,” Tonti said. “Apps are fairly expensive, and complex to build and manage. You have to build and manage for many, many platforms.”

On the other hand, Beavers of Doapp argues that “the era of the app is right now.”

“Our numbers show that the app does much better than the WAP [wireless application protocol, which is used for mobile sites] — 1,500 percent better traffic.”

That correlates with NPR’s experience. According to Kinsey Wilson, senior vice president and general manager of NPR Digital Media, mobile traffic increased tenfold within four months of launching NPR’s iPhone app.

Still, it’s not wise to build an app just because it seems cool. A logical process would be to get a good mobile site up and running, then begin developing apps for particular handsets. 

Don’t forget that you’ll need a content management system that talks to your main CMS, as well as a way to encode and serve video for mobile, since many handsets can’t handle Flash video.

Who will develop the products or products?

The two extremes here are doing all the work in-house or farming the whole thing out to a development company. But there’s a wide middle ground.

For instance, NPR employees designed and developed its mobile site, but for the iPhone and iPad apps, they did the design and had an outside company build it. NPR’s Android app was developed by a Google employee, using his 20 percent time. Thomson Reuters, on the other hand, hired a design firm for all three of its iPad apps, but did the development in-house. The company did use an outside firm to develop the Android and BlackBerry versions of its News Pro app.

How will you promote it?

All the developers I talked to stressed the importance of promotion. You can’t release a product and hope people find it. You can use browser detection and redirect people to your mobile site, but that alone won’t be enough.

Use your newspaper or station to promote your mobile site or app, and make sure the information is easy to find on your website. If you’re developing an app, you have a fairly small window — about a week, according to some research — to make a big splash on iTunes.

What are your goals, budgets and timetables?

Specific goals are important. Set traffic goals, which means you’ll need good analytics and someone who watches those numbers. Don’t forget to budget for ongoing development and sales training. Set up a timetable for development, release, promotion, traffic and re-evaluation.

What will you do next?

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Plan now for change and how you will adjust as new platforms and new technologies come along. Start thinking about what will you do on tablets. Stay current on what’s happening and watch what others are doing. Who can you learn from and (using the sincerest form of flattery) imitate?

These are exciting days. It’s a great time to dive in, create something new, and have fun!

CLARIFICATION: The original version of this post stated that Thomson Reuters developed its three apps in-house, which referred to Reuters’ three apps for the iPad. However, Handmark developed Reuters’ News Pro apps for the BlackBerry and Android platforms.

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