The mobile landscape: 10 things media pros should know

What’s the current state of mobile media, what might the future hold, and what should media and communications professionals know about it? This week I’m speaking at a boatload of sessions on these topics at the Annenberg school for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles. Their event is Mobile News Week 2011.

Many of these sessions involve me explaining important trends and context likely to affect how people use phones as media tools. Here are 10 key points I think are worth noting…

1. Mobile is huge

According to ComScore, as of December 2010, 234 million Americans over age 13 used mobile phones — about 96% of all American teens and adults. ComScore also says that 68% of US mobile users use text messaging; 36% browse the web from their phones, 34% download apps, and 25% use mobile social media.

Also, recent Nielsen research says that as of May 2010, US mobile users spent more time sending or reading e-mail on their phones than any other internet-enabled mobile activity (comprising 38.5% of mobile internet time spent). Social media was a distant second (10.7%)

These represent huge potential mobile audiences.

2. Mobile internet access is taking over

A year ago, Clyde Bentley noted Gartner’s prediction that by 2013, most US internet access will happen via mobile devices, not on computers. Based on this, he set forth a pretty good mobile roadmap to 2013 for news organizations.

Bottom line: Whether you like it or not, in the very near future your entire digital strategy will be mostly mobile by default. If your design your digital offerings to be inclusive of the full range of mobile devices in use, you’re more likely to success.

3. Don’t overestimate the smartphone/tablet market

If you only read the tech news, you might think that everyone already has a smartphone — or they will by next Tuesday. However, according to ComScore, as of December 2010 close to three-fourths (73%) of all phones currently in use in the US are “feature” phones, which do not run native apps, usually lack touchscreens, have simpler browsers, and usually can only access slower wireless data networks.

Still, most feature phones are web-enabled and can do e-mail or social media. My own research shows that, at least in Oakland, CA, the majority of feature phone owners do these mobile activities daily or most days. (And with the recent Qualcomm/Opera Mini deal, expect feature phone web browsing to increase sharply later in 2011.)

Smartphones and tablets are important and they are becoming more popular. So far, they’re also fairly pricey — $100-$200 to buy (subsidized), plus a carrier plan that typically runs $100/month per more under a two-year contract. (Tablets are far pricier up front.) That’s more than many people can or would pay for a phone. Also, cost-conscious users tend to prefer no-contract month-to-month phone plans, for flexibility.

Although technology is evolving, the affordable low end of the mobile market will almost certainly be the largest part. Focusing your mobile strategy primarily on the high end (with, say, iPhone/iPad/Android apps) turns a blind eye to most of your potential mobile audience.

4. Measuring mobile traffic is tricky

This is true especially for counting feature phone traffic. I’ve experimented with several mobile metrics tools over the past year, and all of them make it difficult to figure out how much of your traffic is coming from smartphones vs. feature phones. In particular, Google Analytics seems to count most feature phone traffic as regular web hits, which can drastically mislead your mobile strategy.

PercentMobile seems to do the best job of counting mobile traffic, although it’s not great. They’ve created their own category of “experience phones,” which doesn’t really make sense to me and seems to comprise the largest part of mobile traffic measured with their tools. Plus, because PercentMobile (or any mobile-only tracking tool) is separate from your other analytics, integrating that data for analysis can be difficult — making it harder to measure and understand your mobile audience.

5. Learn from mobile marketers

Marketers are doing most of the pioneering work with putting mobile media to good use, especially for engagement (an area where the news biz sorely needs improvement). A lot of people in the news business are averse to learning from marketers or about marketing. That needs to stop. I strongly recommend these books:

And Kim Dushinski’s blog, Mobile Marketing Profits.

6. Social media is inherently mobile

People who use social media generally access it from their phones as well as their computers. I mean, the whole reason why Twitter has that 140-character limit is to play nice with basic SMS text messaging.

Therefore, consider social media one of the key channels to promote your content, engage your community/market, get feedback, and find great story leads or marketing intelligence.

We’ve had tremendous success at Oakland Local with engaging people via Twitter and Facebook. In fact, last weekend our Facebook page crossed the 5000-fan mark!

Again, social media is a field where news/media pros can learn from marketers. Two great books:

7. US carriers have the mobile market here locked down

This is especially true for smartphones, and this is likely to continue. Furthermore, the FCC’s new net neutrality rules exempt wireless carriers from most requirements — leaving the door open for carriers to charge users extra to access content that you might be publishing online for free. (They can’t charge the content or service providers extra to deliver their content at acceptable speeds, but they can ding customers for access, or throttle delivery speed.) As the net increasingly goes mobile, this can drastically change the economics of all kinds of mobile publishing.

8. Wireless networks are getting faster, but still expect traffic jams

Right now, wireless network congestion is getting worse, even as carriers are rolling out higher-speed networks (LTE, HSPA+, and other “4G” technologies). This is because carriers are selling data-hungry devices faster than they can serve them, especially in many metro markets. If your mobile strategy hinges on assumptions about the data speeds consumers will see most of the time (especially key for video), then best reality-check carrier claims of “speeds of up to..” with crowdsourced carrier signal maps.

9. Responsive design for the mobile web

A good idea for planning your mobile web site is to incorporate principles of responsive design right from the beginning. This will allow the delivery and presentation of your content to automatically adjust to the features and limitations of certain categories of devices.

Book: Mobile Web Design for Dummies

10. Let people talk back via mobile

Mobile devices are for communication, not just media consumption. Build into your mobile strategy ways that people can easy contribute content (photos, video are naturals) or participate (polls, etc.) in your content offerings. And don’t forget about audio options — most of these devices are still phones, after all!

3 thoughts on The mobile landscape: 10 things media pros should know

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