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.

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  • alistaircunningham

    A useful lesson in considering mobile news is that mobile is more than just iPhone and iPad. Many historically paper news and desktop news outlets forget this.