Going mobile: Tips for hyperlocal and community news sites

These are notes and resources for my presentation on mobile media at Block by Block 2011, a gathering of hyperlocal and community news sites, and the organizations that support and serve them.


Special demonstration of the unique impact of mobile media, courtesy of Will Sullivan (@journerdism)

Then…   How mobile-friendly is your site?

  • Check out your site on a mobile phone’s web browser (home page, and specific story). How much zooming, scrolling, etc. is required just to see what’s going on?
  • Have your neighbor bring up your site on their phone.
  • If you don’t have a web-enabled phone, check out your site on a mobile device or on the Opera Mini simulator. (Note: On a computer, sometimes the simulator doesn’t serve up the mobile site, so checking from a mobile device is more reliable.)
  • For comparison, check out CNN.com, the Spokesman Review, MLB.com, West Seattle Blog, MyVeronaNJ.com, MyEverettNews.com on a mobile device. How are these mobile sites different from yours?

Hyperlocal and mobile: the big picture

Brand new report from Pew: Nearly half of American adults get some local news/info via mobile devices. So far they’re mostly getting weather, breaking news, restaurant/business info, traffic updates on their phones. So far they’re not visiting news sites or apps of any kind very much.

Why? My opinion: Most mobile news offerings are shovelware and not action-oriented. Also, they aren’t easy to use or navigate on a mobile browser. In a mobile context that makes them inherently second-rate.

The good news for hyperlocal: Independent community news/info sites may be especially well suited to do mobile news much better than major legacy news brands or centrally operated networks such as Patch or the Huffington Post. More nimble, little/no bureaucracy, not burdened by unwieldy systems they don’t control. Also, they’re closer to the community, where it’s easier to see the local nuances in the mobile market.

PROBLEM: Most people in the news business (any part of it, including hyperlocal) aren’t yet very comfortable/familiar with using the range of mobile media and channels. That limits their ability to see and exploit emerging opportunities. We tend to create the kind of media we’re used to using — going mobile requires expanding your personal media usage skills and tastes.

ACTION STEP 1: Start doing as much as you can with your phone. For everything, not just for news. Use every mobile channel you can. See what you like and don’t. Ask people in your community what they do with their mobile devices — all kinds of phones and other devices, including cheap non-smartphones.

Grab your friend’s phones and play with them. (OK, ask them first…) Walk into mobile stores and demo the hell out of the features on new phones — not just the expensive ones. If you own a smartphone, also buy a cheap feature phone (prepaid or month-to-month) to see how the other half lives.

Your goal: Get a sense of how mobile tech, media, and communication are augmenting people’s lives. Ultimately you want your news/info to be woven into the fabric of their lives, accessible wherever they are. Mobile helps your venue become more like the air your community breathes, not a special place they visit.

Look for revenue options! Sign up for text alerts, esp. fr local businesses. Look for other mobile ad/revenue strategies. Doesn’t matter if it doesn’t suit your personal taste. How do these strategies function, and how do they pay off? Most news sites, are doing a terrible job of mobile ads — and most hyperlocal sites don’t seem to be doing anything w/ mobile ads/revenue streams.

What is mobile good for?

The main problem with most mobile news offerings is that they are shovelware. With the exception of e-reader apps, music players and YouTube, cell phones are not great publishing or media consumption platforms.

Use mobile for what it’s best at: People like to use their phones to DO stuff.

(CAVEAT: Tablets aren’t really “mobile,” since they’re mostly a lean-back experience. In contrast, cell phones are all about activity and entertainment on the go. They’re what you grab when you need something right away, or have a few spare moments.)

The best mobile offerings are services, not content. Don’t expect people to read long articles on their cell phones. So figure out what kinds of services your content can offer or support.

Consider what they could use on the go, what they’d enjoy, what would give them an edge, what they might want to note to check out later, what they might want to share. Then focus on delivering just that much via mobile. And make sure your mobile users know exactly where to turn to find the fuller version of anything that caught their attention.

Mobile is a way to foster ambient awareness and value in your community. Mobile makes it easy for people to encounter your content, benefit from it, and share it — although their cell phone probably won’t be where they settle in for a deep dive on a topic you’ve covered.

Let people use their phones to talk back to you or contribute. Texting, e-mail, sharing photos, and social media are consistently most popular non-voice cell phone activities on any kind of phone. Those are all two-way (at least) communication channels. Consider how your mobile offerings can support or encourage two-way interaction, in ways that are friendly and fun for mobile users.

Current U.S. mobile landscape:

  1. The web is quickly becoming mostly mobile by default. According to IDC, by 2015, most U.S. internet access will happen from mobile devices. (Gartner predictedthat globally this tipping point will happen in 2013)
  2. About 77% of all Americans (all ages, from infants to centenarians) own cell phones. (comScore, US population clock)
  3. About 35% of these phones are smartphones (comScore, July 2011 figures).
  4. About 65% are “feature phones” — all of which can do text messaging (which requires no data plan), and many of which have e-mail and web access (albeit generally slow and clunky). The only thing feature phones cannot do is run sophisticated apps (but they can run simple apps). So the feature/smartphone line is blurry, and it’s getting blurrier.
  5. By late 2012 most U.S. handsets in use will be smartphones (based on comScore data). But the cheaper/simpler end of the mobile market will probably always be the largest part of the market in most communities. So be ready to serve the phones that most people in your community have at any given time.

How Americans use their cell phones:

  • Around 92% of smartphone owners (60% of feature phone owners) send/receive text messages (Pew. Nielsen and comScoreoffered different estimates.)
  • Mobile users spend far more time doing e-mail than Facebook on their phones (Pew, Nielsen)
  • Feature phone web browsers are improving. Opera Mini — which looks pretty nice — now comes preinstalled on (or can be downloaded to) almost any U.S, feature phone. It is currently the #2 mobile browser, behind the iPhone’s mobile Safari, and ahead of the Android stock browser. (NetMarketShare) In a year most feature phones will probably come with web browsers that look more like Opera Mini, so that’s a good target to design for.
  • Right now, most web sites suck on most mobile devices. In fact, usability experts at Nielsen Norman Group recommend that sites don’t bother supporting feature phone access. That may may sense for e-commerce — but probably not for hyperlocal news/community sites.

Most hyperlocal and community sites are NOT friendly to mobile users. Seriously, I checked them out from the conference participant list. They’re not even mobile friendly for smartphone users — too much pinching, zooming, scrolling required for easy navigation. Basic reason: their web sites lack:

  • A mobile-optimized theme
  • Server-side mobile auto-detection, which figures out if a visitor is on a mobile device and routes them accordingly to an appropriate theme.

This can be relatively easy to fix — especially if your site runs on WordPress. (Examples of free, nice looking WordPress mobile themes)

Action step: Implement a mobile-friendly theme for your site (home page and story/other pages).

Yeah, I know I say your mobile presence is not all about your web site. But your mobile web site will be the core of your mobile strategy, because it’s something people can link to and access via search engines. Ultimately it may not be how mobile users encounter you most often, but it absolutely needs to be there to provide value to back up your engagement.

If your site is based on a popular content management system for which many people have created themes (like WordPress), then there are probably already many simple mobile themes to choose from. You can customize these.

Otherwise, it’s worth getting a web designer to develop a simple mobile theme for your site. Here’s some free basic mobile web design advice, and for $300 you can get all the gory details.

Or you can use reformatting services like Mobify.me, as long as they appear under your domain, and you can track the traffic, and you have options to deliver your own ads (or get a really good cut of what they serve up).

Once your site is mobile-friendly, you’ll be better positioned to leverage the power of recommendations to build your brand.

One of the most popular things that people do online is share links — by social media, e-mail, instant messaging, and SMS. New Gallup research shows that most people’s brand preferences are strongly influenced by personal recommendations, and digital media (including mobile) amplifies this effect.

When you get a link from someone you know, that’s a personal recommendation — but if that link doesn’t work on the device you have handy, that won’t help anyone.

Nearly 40% of social media users access social media content from their mobile phone (Nielsen). Many/most of those phones are feature phones — and you want to make sure that if people get a link to your site, they’ll be able to display that page on any mobile device.


These came up in my session, so here they are for your perusal

Mobile Marketing Association mobile advertising guidelines

Our online audience suggested some resources for mobile & Drupal

The Filter Bubble, by Eli Pariser

Further steps in your mobile strategy

OK, there’s no way can I cover all of this stuff in one session. But I’m ready to discuss any of these that interest Block by Block attendees (either in the session, or buy me a drink later):

Do some basic local mobile market research. Don’t guess about what phones people are using: ask.

Experiment with SMS alerts/services/polls. Twilio is a versatile and affordable tool to start experimenting with on a small scale (services up to a thousand or so subscribers). If you want to grow beyond that, you may need access to a shortcode — which can be cheap (with risks), or rock solid (but costly)

Back-end technology. Some content management systems (especially Drupal) make experimenting with mobile more difficult, unless you’re a skilled developer. When you make CMS choices, favor tools that support mobile experimentation well.

WordPress is a good bet for less-technical site operators. Also consider third-party services — it doesn’t all have to be about your web site, you can have more than one digital presence. But you will need to learn more about several kinds of technology to go mobile, including telephony. Small-scale experiments are great learning tools.

Good skills/tools to learn for mobile: HTML5, CSS (including media queries), Javascript, Twilio,

Tablets and iPod Touch-like devices. Small markets for now, and probably not the best place to focus on, even though they look really cool. Wait a year or two before your seriously focus on them.

But there are some interesting developments to watch with these devices, especially if the new Kindle Fire has a decent web browser and really takes off with consumers.

There’s finally an Android answer to the iPod Touch: The Samsung Galaxy Player, coming out in October. Reasonably priced. Wifi only. Basically an Android phone without the phone. We’ll see more of these devices, especially if U.S. wireless carriers keep insisting on two-year contracts and steep early termination fees for decent smartphones.

Having a good mobile site will position you well for the tablet market — although this device would merit its own theme because it has unique size and interface considerations.

E-readers and e-books. Excellent secondary market for your content, with a proven revenue model. Robert Niles has written a lot about e-books in OJR. Also, check out the Bookbrewer platform for repackaging web or blog content as e-books and getting them into the major markets.

Start geotagging all your content with latitude/longitude info, and make sure this gets included as an element in your RSS feed. This will open opportunities to mashup/integrate your content with locative services, which will be getting more popular on mobile devices in coming years. At that point, if you have an archive of geotagged content, you’ll be ahead of the game.

Mobile web apps are an option to offer interactivity directly through the browser. Or look for mobile web apps to package as features within your site. Apps.USA.gov offers several examples that run on all phones.

Let people phone it in! Capture phoned-in audio for comments, etc. Evoca offers some affordable solutions.

Use print to complement/push mobile. This could involve publishing your own print supplement, distributing stickers/fliers/postcards with QR codes, etc.

Mobile-friendly e-mail newsletter/alerts. Opt-in only, no graphics, short versions of links.

Smartphone apps. Probably not worth the expense/effort for most hyperlocal sites at this point. A good mobile web site will get you farther.

The main problem with smartphone apps is that you have to do a separate software development project for each platform you want to serve, and maintain that platform, and make sure your content gets into the app correctly.

And on the user’s side, in order to get value from a smartphone app they must:

  • Already know and like your brand enough to want to get your app
  • Have the right kind of phone
  • Download and install it your app
  • Use it regularly. (The vast majority of apps get opened just a handful of times LINK)

That’s a lot of hurdles, compared to just opening a page on your site in their mobile web browser — especially when someone they know sends them a link to your site.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *