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.

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  • Amy Gahran

    On a related note, my CNN Tech mobile blog post today is: New Facebook app shows why feature phones still matter

    Researching this post made me realize that over the coming decade, the most money to be made in the evolving mobile market probably involves serving the low end better. So the most successful mobile ventures will embrace the range of mobile technology, not just focus on high-end devices.


  • Amy Gahran

    Steve, those Nielsen numbers do refer to new phone purchases only. It’s really important to read the fine print on a lot of mobile statistics, because I’ve seen a strong tendency for headlines to automatically highlight smartphones rather than fairly represent what the numbers show.

    Several other studies from comScore, Nielsen, Forrester, and other indicate a current national average of 30% smartphone penetration — a finding echoed in my own small market research study.

    People tend to hang on to their phones longer than you might think, especially in a tight economy. I have no doubt that smartphones will get more popular, and that feature phones will get smarter. But there will always be a low-end of mobile tech, and it will always be huge, and it’s actually the easiest place to start. I think it’s a mistake to dismiss or overlook it.

  • Amy Gahran

    Facebook introduced its new feature phone app on the Snaptu Java platform. That app is only for non-US markets. There are other Java-enabled app platforms, like GetJar and BREW. In my experience, these Java-enabled apps get the highest use when they’re pushed by carriers.

    GigaOm says the feature phone app market is booming. But still, I wouldn’t start there. Start with a lean mobile-friendly web experience and build out from there.

  • Amy Gahran

    A good baseline feature phone experience does NOT involve developing apps for 2500 handsets. Rather, it’s developing a mobile web site that conforms to basic constraints of microbrowsers, and is easy to navigate via keypad. If you can do that AND at least try to think beyond shovelware, you’ll go a long way.

    Also integrate into your mobile strategy texting, e-mail, and social media. It’s not just about the mobile web, it’s about channels and shareability.

  • Amy Gahran

    It’s true that feature phones are getting smarter, and before long we’ll see more feature phones with better web browsers. But the issue for most users is ongoing costs. For the low end of the mobile market, one way that carriers are able to offer things like MetroPCS’ hugely popular $40/unlimited everything plan is to force a low-bandwidth mobile browsing experience through handset options.

    My point is that the largest part of the mobile market will probably always fall on the low end. Both the low and high end will continue to get more sophisticated — but ignoring the low end means ignoring a business opportunity and (if anyone cares) failing to serve the parts of your community that actually need you most.

    Which is why I recommend that news orgs first offer a strong low-end mobile baseline service before pouring lots of precious resources into smartphone/tablet apps.

  • Amy Gahran

    Kleinmatic: Well, I was wondering the same thing. So I did a local market survey in Oakland, CA and found a couple of striking things:

    1. 70% of handsets in use here are feature phones (in line with the national average)
    2. A total of 80% of all mobile users in Oakland access the web from their phones daily or most days. If we assume that includes the full 30% who use smartphones, then the remaining 50% of mobile web users here are surfing from feature phones.

    This is why I think it’s important to do local market research surveys for mobile, not just to make assumptions based on tech media (which seems to think everyone will have a smartphone by next Tuesday, or that feature phones don’t matter).

    Actually, in my experience, developing a feature phone-friendly mobile experience is technically less difficult and financially less costly than building native apps for smartphones. The core of it is having a mobile-friendly version of your site that displays and navigates well in feature phone browsers. And at least try to do more with it than shovelware. Also, consider texting, e-mail, and social media more fully as part of your integrated mobile web strategy.

  • Amy Gahran

    Oh, and here’s a post I wrote for the Knight Digital Media Center on the importance of doing local mobile market research:

  • Anonymous

    Facebook did use a vendor, but they also (I believe) negotiated placement with carriers and etc. Oakland Local’s example is closer to what I am imagining which is basically what Gahran describes as a ‘lean’ mobile site running on WAP that is fairly accessible on a range of feature phone browsers. Amy chimed in (below) on Twitter earlier so perhaps we can get her to write another blog post on the topic to further explore their development process. There seems to be a fair amount of interest in it.

  • Anonymous

    Steve –

    Pretty sure Nielsen is referring to ongoing sales, not overall penetration. Smart phones are already pretty close to 50% of new devices sold, but they still have a fair ways to go to hit 50% of those actually in use.

  • Steve Buttry

    Damon, I don’t know whose numbers are correct, but these numbers from Nielsen project smartphone penetration topping 50 percent this year:

  • Anonymous

    I do see now they used a third party as well, so I guess it’s a matter of how big you are. Don’t know what it cost, but I’ll bet it was a drop in the bucket for them. Others will have to weigh it against potential customer gain/loss and any potential revenue.

  • Anonymous

    At the moment smart phone users are fairly active app downloaders and news consumers. Pew did a study in this last fall:

  • Anonymous

    I guess I misunderstand what you are talking about if you say “it is not much of a challenge technically speaking.” My impression as a developer is that it’s a lot tougher to develop for 2500 different handsets than building an iPhone and Android app, no? Either case is beyond most news publisher’s capabilities as evidenced by the large number of third party publishing app providers. Even AP uses a third party developer.

  • Anonymous

    Feature phone ownership might be much higher than smartphone ownership, but how many people who own feature phones use apps and mobile optimized websites? I’m not convinced the number is high enough to merit the significant expense involved in building apps for the dizzying variety of feature-phone platforms, WAP-browser capabilities, not to mention carrier negotiations, etc.

  • Anonymous

    They should focus on the new stuff – where the growth is. But, in some markets it is tough to justify leaving 70% of your potential audience behind, when building a simple feature-phone friendly experience is not too much of challenge technically speaking.

    Damon Kiesow

  • Anonymous

    Actually, I would just concentrate on HTML 5. : )

  • Anonymous

    It would have been nice if they had supported these devices all along, but the door is closing too rapidly to spend resouces on a dying format. If that’s the case, they should be investing in print, which they are, but it won’t help build a future. Facebook has the resources to do both. But if it’s a choice, I’d favor the next generation of devices.