Commentary

Can Mobile Save News Brands?

Focus is one of the key attributes of mobile media. I am not sure we fully appreciate that yet, but it is becoming increasingly apparent to me that an absence of clutter and a narrowness of options on handsets are two of the best friends both advertisers and content providers have on this platform. As I ranted about last time, superior ad creative cannot be driving mobile users to higher click-through rates, because there is precious little of it. It is more likely that having a single ad unit on limited display real estate simply focuses the user's attention on a single message. The mobile platform stands in stark contrast to the typical ad-choked Web page. 

For the time being, the mobile content eco-system is also considerably less complex than the Web. Almost all major publishers struggle against fragmenting audiences online. As search and third-party aggregation became the true drivers for our news-gathering habits, fewer users encountered news items via a provider's brand face, their front door. As traffic started moving more laterally across the Web, from search results and blog links, we ended up finding news opportunistically and from sites we never heard of -- let alone bookmarked. The biggest casualty of digital technology has been media brand loyalty. 

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In mobile, the search eco-system is not that evolved, nor are our browsing habits similarly broad. We don't move laterally across blog links and search results to information because we are more wary of where we will land. Will it be mobile-friendly, is the perennial question. As I monitor my own news gathering habits on mobile, especially in applications, I find myself much more reliant on major brands than I am online. Some of these brands understand and exploit the opportunity and others seem oblivious to it. USAToday's mobile apps for Android and iPhone are to my mind exemplary iterations of a newspaper brand on mobile. The brand identity is ever-present in the nigh-cartoonish interface of blue fields and sliding menus into a well-curated trove of data. They have the familiar categories from the site and newspaper, including the Snapshots section of informational charts. The thing is, I never go to USAToday.com online, but it is one of two or three go-to spots to catch up on the latest headlines on mobile. I have apps for  NYTimes and WSJ.com mobile extensions, but they are such a dumping ground of so much content, I balk at the prospect of diving in. Their mobile strategy feels perfunctory. USAToday's feels considered and consistent. The exact same functionality exists on Android and iPhone. 

Similarly, EOnline has the exact same app approach on Android and iPhone, which effectively pares down the brand into essential headlines and clips from the shows you missed last night. Better still, the celebrity database is customizable. Just check off the stars you want to track, and a personalized feed appears every time you access the app. Good lord. Look at that! A value-add! 

What strikes me about both USAToday and E!Online apps is that they are arguments for their respective brands as mobile assets to the user, not just mobile brand extensions. They actually make a strong case for themselves as better go-to sources for their news categories on this platform than some of the competitors I use elsewhere. They are exploiting the new platform early and well in ways that could make me switch brands. If one aspect of a news brand's identity is to filter and prioritize events, to make them digestible, then those are the pieces of the brand most valuable to a mobile user. I understand that media companies now are concerned about being accessible all the time everywhere, and that is a good thing. But this fixation on 360 access may lead some publishers to assume that users just want to extend their Web experience on another display. It's got to be harder than that.

My point is that media brands have a golden opportunity on mobile to reestablish some of the brand equity and loyalty they may have lost in the commoditized content environment of the Web.  There are aspects of mobile that actually replicate the disappearing print world very effectively. Both EOnline and USAToday's apps feel like a branded content experience in much the same way a distinct newspaper or magazine design envelops you in their sensibility. Some of it comes from focus. Ironically for such a small screen, we are less distracted when we are absorbed in mobile content than we would be on the desktop, with email, five sites and documents all vying for attention. What a terrible opportunity to waste on simply refashioning a Web feed.       

3 comments about "Can Mobile Save News Brands?".
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  1. Mike Patterson from WIP, Inc., May 21, 2009 at 3:24 p.m.

    Great stuff as usual Steve, seems repetitive to say but mobile is all about personalization...and personalization brings focus, focus brings targeted eyeballs. Next question...how to monetize? Stay tuned...

  2. Dave Lafontaine from Artesian Media, May 21, 2009 at 4:05 p.m.

    > Ironically for such a small screen, we are less distracted when we are absorbed in mobile content than we would be on the desktop, with email, five sites and documents all vying for attention. <

    Yes! This dovetails nicely with the research being done by Mimi Ito at the Annenberg Foundation, on media consumption habits in Japan, Korea & China. She found that ad messages on the mobile deck were far more effective for just that reason. The typical teenager's bedroom has a TV blaring, radio pounding, laptop open, cellphone texting & schoolbooks open. Good luck breaking through that clutter.

    Meanwhile, when these same kids get on the bus/train, or are killing time - they put the headphones in and retreat to the small mobile screen. Ito called it "Cocooning Media." Look for more of this, as we start to use more mass transit here as gas prices start rising back towards $5/gal.

    There is a tremendous opportunity for publishers in the next couple of years to come roaring back from the mistakes they've made on the web, by intelligently leveraging the strengths that you've identified in the mobile space. Unfortunately, this is going to require investing in dedicated mobile content, at a time when most media operations have enough trouble just keeping the lights on...

    Thanks for the E! example. Hadn't checked them out on the iPhone yet, but I'm about to.

  3. Tamara Gruber from Crisp Wireless, May 22, 2009 at 11:48 a.m.

    Great article Steve and right on. There is less distraction on the small screen and advertising is more noticeable and actionable. I agree also that I tend to use the CNN and USA Today iPhone sites for mobile news vs the multitude of sources on the web. Interesting about the EOnline app allows you to personalize the celebrity database, I'll have to check that out.

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