Exploding some common myths about the role of feature phones in the mobile media market

Yesterday I noted that on Poynter.org, Damon Kiesow picked up on my call for news organizations to pay more attention to feature phones in their mobile strategies.

See: News publishers need to reach the 74% of Americans on feature phones

But some of comments from journalists who read that story indicate some pretty common misunderstandings that people in the media business often have concerning feature phones.

I’m not faulting my colleagues for these misunderstandings. It’s understandable — they’re as drenched in smartphone/tablet hype as anyone who gets tech news. So I hope no one takes this post as disrespect.

However, since news orgs ostensibly have a mission to serve their entire communities (not just the people who can afford high-end mobile devices), and since advertising and similar revenue models generally work better when you reach more people., I thought I’d point out and clear up some of these feature phone fallacies…

1. Most US mobile users will own smartphones this year, so feature phones are a dying market.

A lot of media biz people get excited over this Mar. 2010 “bullet” chart from Nielsen, which at first glance appears to project that by Q3 2010 half of all US phones will be smartphones.

Read the fine print: This research refers only to NEW handset sales, not to all mobile phones in use. Plus it’s a guess of what might happen in a fast-changing market over 20 months out — which increases the margin of error.

Currently other research from Nielsen, comScore, Forrester, and elsewhere (including my own humble local mobile market research for Oakland Local) indicates pretty consistently a current national average smartphone penetration of 30%. That’s nothing to sneeze at, and smartphones are indeed an important trend worth watching. But they’re nowhere near the majority of the market yet, and I doubt that will happen for at least a few years, if at all. In the meantime, there’s a huge existing feature phone market waiting to be served NOW.

2. Few feature phone users access mobile apps or mobile-optimized web sites — too few to bother serving

I haven’t found any good national-level research specifically on feature phone web access. (If someone else has seen it, I’d appreciate the pointer.) Also, many web analytics systems (especially Google Analytics) don’t do a good job of reporting feature phone visitors. Which is why it’s pretty important to do your own local mobile market research.

For example, I did a mobile market survey last summer for Oakland Local, and found that although only 30% of Oakland mobile users have smartphones, 80% reported accessing the mobile web daily or most days. So most of that had to be happening from feature phones.

Mobile is all about what works locally, so doing your own research is key. I wouldn’t assume the feature phone mobile web market is too small to serve until you check.

3. Why spend precious resources on a dying format?

Oh, like print? </snark> …OK, the issue here is not feature phones as they have existed to this point, but the big picture of recognizing and serving the huge business potential that lies in the low end of the mobile market. As I noted today in CNN Tech, there will always be a low end to the mobile market. And it will always be huge (for economic reasons, but also general mainstream resistance to change in key consumer products).

It takes a different editorial and business mindset to serve this mass mobile market, vs. affluent people and chronic early adopters. Learning this mindset will serve media companies even as feature phones eventually get smarter, and smartphones evolve into holographic brain implants or something. Why wait to learn how to capitalize on that opportunity? Why stand by, diverting your gaze, as another Craigslist stand-in inevitably walks up to finish eating the rest of the news industry’s lunch?

4. It’s too hard to develop apps for 2500 different kind of devices.

Yes — so it’s a good thing apps are totally not necessary for a viable lean mobile strategy. Once and for all, please stop thinking mobile = apps!

The basis of a lean mobile strategy is a web site that displays and works well on feature phone browsers. Many news orgs already do this, but all they use it for is headline shovelware, and it’s hard to navigate and search these sites via feature phones. Use a little bit of imagination to create a more compelling experience. That’s the challenging part — not the technology.

Also, remember that mobile is about channels and sharing, not just about eyeballs on your site.  Text messages, e-mail, and social media all are (or should be) important parts of your mobile strategy. And guess what? They all work on the vast majority of feature phones.

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