Mobile media reaches far, far beyond mere just smartphone/tablet apps. There are lots of ways to communicate with, and engage, your audience via the mobile devices they have in hand right now — even if they don’t have smartphones (which is the case for about 70% of the current US mobile market).
If you’re in the news business, or in any way involved with media, it’s important to devise a mobile strategy that’s inclusive. That means: Unless you’re really only interested in serving the small minority of the population that can afford (and has lots of time to play around with) souped-up, pricey smartphones and tablets, then it’s crucial to offer at least some mobile content and services that works well with simpler devices and slower data connections.
The low end will always be the largest part of the mobile media market. If your plan is to focus on smartphones and wait until most people get the kinds of devices and plans you think they should have in order to serve them, the next Craigslist is going to come along and eat your lunch. Again.
Here are the key mobile channels…
NOTE: I’ve listed these in the order in which I think most journalists and news orgs should implement them in an integrated, inclusive mobile strategy.
1. MOBILE WEB SITE
Your mobile web site should be the core of your mobile strategy, since it’s linkable and search-friendly (which means it’s not a silo). Everything you do in any digital media should link back to specific pages within your mobile web site (not just to your home page). Your site should use responsive web design or multiple themes, plus auto-detection and routing of mobile visitors, to serve mobile users the experience most appropriate to the device they have in hand.
All smartphones and most feature phones come with web browsers. Of course, right now the feature phone web browsing experience generally is slow, cumbersome, and costs extra. It doesn’t help that most web sites display spectacularly poorly on feature phone browsers. So for now, roughly only around half of feature phone users browse the web. That’s still a bigger mobile web audience than all smartphones put together, though. However this is likely to change quickly, since feature phones will start getting much better browsers within the year.
The mobile web site is probably the smartest way to deliver most of your online content. It’s easier to develop an maintain, and this single channel serves a multitude of mobile devices. Really only do a native smartphone/tablet app (see below) if you have clear plans to make specific, prominent use of the added functionality those devices offer. Content shovelware makes a boring app.
Facebook, Twitter, and other social media are hugely popular. Many journos and news orgs already use them to engage with their communities and spread the reach of their content. And most people who use social media access it at least part of the time via mobile devices. Therefore, expect anything you do in social media, or any links to your content that people share via social media, will have a sizable mobile audience by default. In fact, once you have a good mobile web site in action, you can use social media to jump start your mobile strategy.
Hands down, this is the single most popular non-voice activity among mobile users of all kinds. Even smartphone users who have access to sophisticated apps text a lot. For news publishers, you should at least be offering opt-in text messaging services for breaking news and perhaps your top story of the day. You could segment this further to offer top stories by section, community, or other criteria.
Whenever you send a text message, it should include a short-format link to the most relevant specific page on your web site. At least give mobile users the option to learn more if they want to or can access the web. Do not provide a link to your home page. Navigating and searching on even the slickest smartphone is a hassle in most mobile use cases. So even for fast-breaking news, first post something — anything — on your mobile site as a placeholder, then add news to that destination page as the story develops.
You can include links to ads in SMS alerts if you like — but if you’re using bottom-feeder ad networks (like the Denver Post currently does), that really puts off users and tarnishes your brand, in exchange for what probably amounts to pennies. Only put quality ads in your SMS messages. This is a highly targeted, opt-in media channel. That makes i valuable. Sell it that way to advertisers.
Most mobile phones (including most feature phones) can do e-mail — and it’s especially popular on BlackBerry, which is still the most popular type of smartphone in the US. According to comScore, mobile e-mail is getting increasingly popular overall.
Offer one or more opt-in newsletters or alert services for breaking news, top stories, etc. Do this as opt-in only — if you buy lists or try to co-opt lists you’ve built for other purposes, you could end up violating the law and having ISPs block your outbound mail.
When people subscribe to your e-mail newsletter/alerts, ask them if they often check e-mail on their phone. If so, make plain text-only e-mail the default for those newsletters/alerts. Offer HTML formatting only as an option, or as the default for people who don’t use mobile e-mail.
Keep your newsletter very short — just 1-3 items at a time, with a specific link for each that will default to a mobile-friendly page as needed. 100-300 words is a good length. Get in, get out. If you include ads, make them text-based rather than graphical.
This is web site or page that delivers interactive services via the mobile web browser. These can be simplified to work on feature phone browsers. On the high end, many smartphone browsers are now HTML5-compatible, which allows even more app-like functionality through the mobile browser. If you have an iPhone or Android, check out Twitter’s new mobile site to see this in action.
Any mobile app, including mobile web apps, is more likely to succeed in engaging users if they focus on interactivity. Make sure your app DOES something. Also, feel free to experiment with offering several smaller special-purpose apps, rather than trying to shoehorn too much into one app.
6. NATIVE SMARTPHONE APPS
Smartphone apps are programs that runs on top of specific smartphone/tablet operating system platforms. Users download these apps and install them on their device. These apps then generally interact with data streams from the internet or from the app creator’s servers.
Apps are cool, but they should be one of the last steps in your mobile strategy. This is because each platform you develop an app for (iOS, Android, BlackBerry, etc.) is a separate software development effort that requires ongoing maintenance and updates — yet each smartphone app will only serve a small segment of your mobile audience. You’ll get much more mileage, for much less effort and resources, by developing a really good mobile web site.
Unfortunately, right now smartphone apps (especially iPhone apps) is where most news orgs’ mobile strategies begin and end. Besides neglecting most of your mobile market, there’s another disadvantage: right now native apps are content silos. You can’t really link to the content in them, and you can’t even search the content of all the apps on your phone.
Use smartphone apps only when you intend to seriously capitalize on the special functionalities that each platform offers beyond what the mobile web can do. Content shovelware is not enough for a good app. Also, consider releasing several small special-purpose apps.
Smartphone apps can be two-way, or multidirectional. They can be especially good for crowdsourcing projects, or working with citizen journalists. Also, if your reporters all have smartphones and they’re doing a lot of mobile reporting, you might want to develop a private app just for staff that integrates with your content management system to make mobile filing easier, more reliable, and more efficient. I’ve heard the BBC is working on this.
Quick response (QR) codes are fast becoming a useful way to engage mobile users with your content. The point of these is that they get around the inherent hassle of trying to type a URL in to a mobile browser while you’re on the go. You just launch the QR code app on your phone, snap a picture of the QR code, and it launches your mobile browser to take you to the destination (which should, of course, be a mobile-friendly landing page. Duh.)
People might encounter your QR code in your print news outlet, on a TV or movie theater screen, on a subway ad, in a magazine, on a sticker or flyer, or elsewhere — even t-shirts or tattoos! (Seriously!) Increasingly smartphones and higher-end, newer feature phones come equipped with (or can download) apps that allow people to use QR codes to connect to information.
If QR codes aren’t yet popular in your coverage area, invest in some market education. Publish (or link to) plain-language explainers (text and video) that explain what QR code are, how they work, and why you might want to use them.
This can be both a mobile content and marketing strategy. Experiment! Print QR codes at the end of stories to take people to mobile-friendly online extras, use them in games or scavenger hunts to help promote your news brand, offer them to advertisers, and more.
Right now, tablets like the iPad get a ton of hype, but they’re a vanishingly small part of the mobile media market. Compared to mobile phones, they’re a small part of the market, and their revenue return has been disappointing for news orgs. so while it’s cool that news orgs are experimenting with tablet apps, I think doing too much of that right now is an unfortunate misuse of scarce resources.
…Unless you have a really good business model for your tablet app. Note that Apple, in particular, doesn’t offer publishers a good deal. (Yes, Apple has recently mellowed a bit, but still…)
The key point about tablets is that they aren’t really “mobile” like phones are. Sure, they’re portable, and they work over wireless carrier networks (as well as wifi). But people tend to sit down and focus with them more, rather than use them while they’re walking or doing other stuff (as is the case with mobile phones).
So when you design your mobile web site, make sure you’re auto-detecting tablet traffic and serving a tablet-friendly layout to those users. Responsive web design can help make that happen.
It you decide to make a tablet app, make sure you really focus on how to put the special functionality of the tablet device/environment front and center. It needs to blow away your mobile web experience. (And that should not be an excuse to skimp on mobile web development.
Here are some more mobile channels which are outside of the mainstream of what news orgs and journos are using so far — but they all work on mobile devices:
- Audio (call-in or downloadable). These devices are phones, after all! Smartphones can subscribe to podcasts. Also anyone from any phone (even a landline) can call in to a phone number to listen to audio or record comments. Tools like Asterisk or Evoca can help you bring audio services to your mobile audience.
- MMS. On mobile phones, photo/video messaging is handled over the wireless carrier network via multimedia messaging service. Right now this probably isn’t a great outbound media channel for most mobile news orgs — but it could be a good inbound channel — especially for crowdsourcing projects, photo contests, etc.
- App layers and feeds. Map layers or geodata streams (Google Maps, google earth), augmented reality app layers, playing nice with Pulse, etc. Be creative, be collaborative, look forward into the future.