Publishers Must Be Practical About Going Mobile

The publishing industry’s readership isn’t just moving online, it’s moving to mobile, and if consumers can more easily access content from a rival publication that displays more effectively on a handheld device, they will, writes Fiona Salmon.

By Fiona Salmon

Yet still, the vast majority of the biggest publications by circulation in the UK – 68 per cent from Vibrant Media’s research – lack a digital site which displays effectively on smartphones and tablets. This shows either a blinkered view of the reality of the growth of mobile content consumption, a state of confusion about what to do about readership increasingly moving to mobile sites, or a more considered approach amongst publishers to deploying a mobile strategy. Let’s hope it’s the lattermost.

Before jumping into the development of an app or dedicated mobile site, publishers are well advised to ask themselves what they really want to achieve by going mobile, how they want to achieve it, and to properly assess the technology that’s currently available. Whilst improving the consumer experience will always be a focus of any premium publisher, the ongoing need for a sustainable media business must be to generate revenue, either from people paying for content or from ad sales. As consumers have now come to expect access to premium editorial for free, encouraging them to pay for content again is a struggle, particularly as there’s so much free content available on the net. The number of people paying for content is still falling, whilst the amount spent on mobile advertising is rising fast, and hit £526m in the UK for 2012 – that’s half a billion quid of marketing budget pumped down the mobile channel when only a third of the biggest media titles in the UK have a site that displays effectively on handheld devices. Generating ad revenue must remain a major part of a publisher’s mobile strategy.

When considering their mobile strategy, publishers may well start off weighing up the potential ad revenue they can generate from a dedicated mobile site versus an app. However, as one in every three page views already comes from a mobile device, according to the Association of Online Publishers, the better approach may be to assess whether they can start generating revenue from mobile users immediately with their existing site, prior to investing in another digital platform, such as an app or a specific mobile site. The Vibrant research found that a sizeable amount of the 32 per cent of big name media titles’ sites did actually render effectively for mobile users, even though they were not dedicated mobile sites. This means that for some publishers, they can already serve mobile users pretty well, it’s just that the ad formats they’re using aren’t right for the mobile consumer.

Most ads on publishers’ websites – even those that are on dedicated mobile sites – aren’t performing effectively within the confines of tablet and smartphone screens because the ad formats deployed were created for desktop devices and not the small format display. Ads often appear on handheld devices as either huge and interruptive, or the creative appears so small the ads are almost impossible to see. Worse still – these ads are often clicked by mistake, creating a negative digital experience for mobile consumers. Serving such ineffective ads on mobile devices limits publishers’ opportunity to earn revenue and likely contributes to a sense among publishers that going mobile isn’t worth the effort.

Yet new responsive design technologies now enable publishers to serve ads optimised for handheld devices from their current website, meaning that a separate, fully optimised mobile site or app is not an absolute necessity to start generating ad revenue from visits via mobile devices. These ads formats are nimbler than the desktop designed banner ad format and work with the small format display, as well as on desktops. Moreover the best of such formats are giving consumers much more control over their ad experience, meaning it’s near impossible for the ads they experience on a mobile device to be launched by mistake.

That said, the websites that publishers operate should render effectively on smartphone and tablet screens to give consumers a quality experience that matches the quality of their editorial. If a site does not display effectively on the smaller screen of a handheld device, consumers will go to other sites for a better content experience. Google research shows that over half of mobile users (52 per cent) said that a bad mobile experience made them less likely to engage with a company and found that over three out of five consumers (61 per cent) would quickly move to another site if they didn’t find what they were looking for right away on a mobile site. Such stats make the case for publishers to opt for a dedicated mobile site, either as an alternative to their print or online publication, or as some monthly print magazine titles seem to do, to maintain the loyalty and relationship of consumers with the publication between issues. Yet the ad formats on dedicated mobile sites still need to drive revenue, and the banner ad formats aren’t serving publishers as they should. It’s an issue Chris Ellis, Trinity Mirror’s Digital MD, seems to recognise, quoted at the Press Gazette’s NewsOnTheMove conference as calling for ‘more native ad formats for mobile phones’.

Of course, some of the largest publications in the UK have already launched app versions of their media titles. The particular benefit of this approach is the ability to encourage app users to pay for content. However, solely focusing on an app strategy for mobile content distribution can mean that the publisher only effectively serves consumers with devices compatible with their app. To explode a common myth – not everyone has an iPhone. In fact, according to Orange, only 31 per cent of people in the UK do. If publishers only develop an app for iPhone devices, they disregard nearly seven out of ten UK mobile users. Moreover, a huge part of consumers’ mobile content experience is driven by their use of search engines and social media shares to access content. By focusing their mobile strategy solely on apps, publishers can ignore the more casual mobile consumer accessing content through such channels who often do not want to download an app for every news source they want to read. Hence an app only mobile strategy without a site that displays effectively for handheld devices for can present a barrier to discovery of quality editorial by new readers. Although Compuware found that 85 per cent of consumers prefer apps to mobile sites, the reasons for this preference – convenience (55 per cent), quickness (48 per cent) and ease of browsing (40 per cent) – indicate that users would feel less affiliation to apps if sites on mobile simply worked better.

Consumers are demanding more mobile content, so it’s incontrovertible that publishers will need to invest in technologies that execute their strategy for smartphones and tablets. Yet it must be a practical strategy that delivers revenue that far exceeds the investment, and as quickly as possible. Making a huge investment in a new content delivery platform may not initially be necessary to realise the revenue benefits from the mobile channel. Some relatively simple deployments of new technologies can start the process.