Upwardly Mobile, Pt. 2: What Works

Just as it was stupid to paste a newspaper onto a computer screen, it's dumb to assume that what works on the Web works on a cellphone screen. They're very different.

In the first part of this two-part post, I described the explosive growth in the delivery of news and information to mobile devices such as cellphones and smartphones—and why newspapers and other local news organizations need to jump quickly into the mobile fray with sophisticated products that have real potential for advertising and even subscription revenue. In this part, I look at what works (and doesn't) in mobile—and why it's different from news and information delivery on the Web.

What really distinguishes mobile is immediacy and location. You want news and info you can use immediately to make a decision—to reroute your trip home because of a traffic jam, to find out about a fast-breaking story or sports score, or to search and find a restaurant, an entertainment venue or a local business. The phone in your hand is your direct pipeline to solving problems right here, right now, and mobile-enabled services have to recognize that. It's the purest definition of the old "news you can use" chestnut.

That breaks down when news organizations aren't smart about what they provide mobile users. I'm a subscriber to WashingtonPost.com's local text alerts, for instance, which veer wildly between traffic and weather bulletins (generally very useful) and not-particularly-time-dependent local news headlines (not very useful, and generally limited to District of Columbia news rather than the Washington suburbs where most of the Post's audience lives). The Post's iPhone-enabled site is fairly slick, but it isn't updated frequently enough: While the text alert service was prompt in delivering results of Virginia's gubernatorial primary election this week, the WashingtonPost.com iPhone app was hours behind with the news. The Post's mobile products are also very lazy about redirecting users to the Web site for more information (a lost opportunity) and do nothing with advertising (lost revenue!).

That's a case study in how not to do mobile news, or at least how to do it poorly. On the other side of the ledger is Tampa Bay Online's ambitious mobile service, which slices and dices local traffic and weather information (the latter very important in hurricane-prone Florida) down to the local town level, so that users get exactly what they want and need in those areas. It even provides localized radar weather maps.

Tim Repsher, who oversees mobile services for Tampa Bay Online and its parent company, Media General, says the secret to a good mobile strategy is "news and information, wherever, anytime, anywhere." A mobile user is "looking for something I want to know right now. … I want to know things as they happen." And that information has to be immediately useful and actionable—not something that can easily wait to be read later. Art Howe, whose Verve Wireless supplies mobile services to Media General and many other newspaper companies, echoes that sentiment: What works in mobile, he says, is "stuff that is immediate to peoples' lives. It's stuff that helps you through your day and your life."

Along those lines, mobile users want to be able to use their phones to search for restaurants, businesses and the like, preferably with reviews and other information (this is why Yelp's iPhone application is so good). Other things that work: Personalized classifieds notifications (e.g. the car you're looking for just popped into the classifieds database), hot deals, sports scores—even high school football results: Media General's WSAV-TV in Savannah signed up booster clubs at 44 high schools to provide real-time football play-by-play via text messages, and gave the boosters a piece of the associated ad revenue to keep them properly motivated. Smart.

Repsher emphasizes that Media General doesn't see mobile as a standalone business. "We use mobile to always draw people back into the core product," he says. "Mobile is supplemental to all your efforts, all your products. It should never be standalone." Media General also uses mobile services to help reporters and photographers file stories and photos, to update liveblogs and Twitter, to solicit and gather user-generated content, and even to help advertisers build their own mobile services. Oh yeah—Repsher also says the company's mobile business is "very profitable," with a very aggressive ad-sales effort.

That's a sophisticated mobile strategy, one that other papers and local news organizations should be studying and emulating. Just as the Web did 15 years ago, mobile is really taking off as a news and information delivery platform, and it may even prove to be more ubiquitous than the Web (the notorious "digital divide" doesn't seem to be affecting mobile growth, so seemingly everybody has—or will have soon—a cellphone or smartphone in their pocket). Perhaps even more so than the Web—and as a direct replacement for the portability of newsprint—smart mobile products give newspapers a chance to retighten their loosening grip on local audiences and advertisers.

PS: The NAA is doing webinars on mobile strategies.

One thought on “Upwardly Mobile, Pt. 2: What Works

  1. Thanks for plugging my case study on mobile advertising for NAA – it’s been a year, and the trends that I identified in my research have only grown stronger. In the last three months, I’ve sat in on conference sessions where media buyers discussed their ad strategies for the next 3-5 years. Big (non)suprise: their plans for the future include exactly $0.00 earmarked for buying traditional print advertising.
    Instead, they report that the Mandate From Above is that they start buying ads in the emerging Big Three: 1) online video, 2) social media, 3) mobile.


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