March 13, 2013

As Cory Bergman explored in a thoughtful piece here last month, mobile connectivity– people linked to the Web via smart phones and tablets — is poised to thoroughly disrupt news all over again.

News publishers must deeply understand the contours of the shift or risk mobile becoming “digital hesitation 2.0.” The market research firm comScore recently released its annual major mobile report. A dive into the data distills lessons for journalism right now, some of them counterintuitive.

Move aggressively to mobile immediately — don’t wait for revenue to materialize

Smartphone ownership grew 30% in 2012 to surpass the 50% mark of units owned. Americans also own 50 million tablets — a penetration in three years that took a decade for smartphones.

One in three minutes spent online (37%) is now on mobile devices — and growing. And news is a major part of the activity — close to two-thirds of tablet owners use the devices for news and half for smart phones.

(A separate report by Adobe Digital finds the level of engagement on tablets is so deep that globally minutes on tablets have surpassed those on smartphones.)

The impact on news sites is huge. Buzzfeed reported this week at South by Southwest that 45% of its traffic comes from mobile. ESPN in 2012 increased mobile traffic by 59% and that now rivals desktop computer traffic. Gannett, a local news company, grew mobile traffic by 32%.

Mobile deepens engagement

Mobile means people engaging with content more often, more conveniently — it adds to your brand not threatens it. And media companies will need to figure out how to monetize the hard way, building users first.

“An overall increase in media engagement … means more monetization opportunities for media companies and a greater ability for marketers to optimize campaigns across platforms,” comScore concludes. “Those who fail to devise an effective multi-platform strategy will likely be left behind.”

Mobile is deeply local. At the Borrell conference last week on local online advertising, Mike Ghaffary of Yelp noted, “Local is all about walking around. So is mobile phone technology.”

Think app — especially for the phone

This is not a Web browser world, especially on phones. Four out of every five minutes in mobile is spent on apps rather than on the browser-based Web. There is also limited real estate on smart phone home pages and on tablets. News operations should become one of those brands while they have the chance.

Consumers turn to “task-specific” apps, not brand portals

News companies also should consider building separate mobile apps for different tasks. Google and Apple are examples. Google’s task specific apps (Google Maps, followed by Google Play, Google Search, Gmail and YouTube) are four of the top five Droid Apps. The top five on iPhones are iTunes, Facebook, Yahoo! Stocks, Google Maps, and Yahoo! Weather.

Don’t make users enter your domain and then navigate with fat fingers on tiny screens to the task they want. Build apps around tasks, make them easy to use. This is what the Web rewards.

This may mean an app for a sports team, neighborhoods, shopping, real estate, and other core content or tasks — in addition to the news home page. There is a fair amount of inventing to be done.

Content must match the strengths and time of day for each platform

For all the popularity of “responsive” design — the idea that your content automatically fits each screen — the data suggest something else: Don’t simply put the same content on each device in the same way. The apps and the content should match how and when people use them.

Mobile news consumption varies throughout the day, just as afternoon newspapers are written for a different audience and a different point in the news cycle than morning papers, or early morning TV news is different than early evening newscasts.

Smartphone usage peaks during travel hours. By contrast, people use tablets most heavily in the evening, after 5 p.m. and particularly from 8 to 11 p.m. There is a smaller but significant spike in tablet usage first thing in the morning. People also read long form content on their tablets — more than they do on any other digital devices.

Tablet apps, it follows, should deliver more content that comes for the evening, after the headlines are known. It should offer more analysis, context and depth. The level of real-time updating might be limited. Much of it might populate after 4 p.m. Knowing this has real consequences for newsroom organization.

On smartphones, content would involve heavier updates at three points of the daily cycle when people are in transit, including lunch. In a converged newsroom, maybe there should be an audio news update. Again, experiment.

Some news leaders love the term “platform agnostic.” Mobile proves again that “agnosticism” is a mistake. Content must be designed to be platform orthodox — or specific to how and when people use devices.

Local publishers must act to help local retailers

The growth in mobile is drastically reshaping shopping, too. One of the biggest changes is called “showrooming,” a phenomenon in which a customer walks into a store, tries on or tries out an item in person, and then while still in the store goes on a smartphone to see if they can buy it cheaper somewhere else or online. Nearly four in 10 Americans (36%) tell comScore they have “showroomed” and nearly half (46%) of smartphone owners.

This challenge for local retailers is a huge opportunity for local news publishers. As a knowledge leader about consumer behavior in town, local publishers should help businesses in their communities remain relevant to showrooming customers. Can they offer price matching programs, local shopping discount clubs or something else?

This is also a way to keep those local businesses from shifting their online business away to non-news publishers who are coming hard at local search and display.

In other words, if publishers wait, Google and Facebook are coming fast — again.

Tom Rosenstiel, the executive director of the American Press Institute, is an author, journalist, researcher and a member of Poynter’s National Advisory Board. You can follow him on Twitter at tbr1.

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One of the most recognized thinkers in the country on the future of news, Tom Rosenstiel (@tomrosenstiel) is the author of 10 books, including three…
Tom Rosenstiel

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