Can We Retrain Desktop Users To Behave Like Tablet Owners?

According to David Payne, Chief Digital Officer at Gannett, about half of the traffic to USA Todayis coming from mobile devices now. He calls it “a train coming through our business.” As everyone well knows by now, the offline dollars that became “digital dimes” shrink further into mobile pennies for many publishers. The temptation of course is to throw Web models at the new device and hope and pray that the money will follow the eyeballs. At yesterday’s OMMA Premium Display event in New York, Payne made a compelling case for reversing some of the polarity of that response. Instead of applying Web models to mobile, start by understanding that the Web ad model was misguided from the start. In fact, you can use some of the lessons of devices to retool the Web.

For all of its talk about being friendly to branding, the Web has always tended to occupy the bottom of the funnel, closer to direct response goals and performance pricing. To produce what Payne calls a “healthier ecosystem,” he showed how Gannet radically redirected its flagship Web property, USAToday.com using tablets and smartphones, specifically touch interfaces, as the driving inspiration. Now, the USAToday main topic pages look and feel much more like a tablet app than a browser-bound site. Navigation “ears” on either side encourage left to right moving through major hub pages. Stories are rendered as illustrated tiles that flip to reveal a summary when moused over on a desktop or tapped on a touch screen. In fact, you can tap a button to turn the page into a “Cover View” that lets you ratchet through the top stories as a series of full-screen images and headlines.

I was curious about the wisdom of this approach, since the modes of use on devices and Web are quite different. Publishers online, especially news and information brands, suffer notoriously brief time-spent metrics compared with offline print and TV media and often much less than tablet or even smartphone versions. But part of this involves the mode of use. After all, the Web is often used during the day, in offices, in a multi-windowed multitasking mode that encourages hopping across ever so many different sites. Increasingly we are driven by search into the side doors of most content brands, and we understand intuitively that any mouse click we make will initiate some kind of laggard page load. Layering a tablet-like feel to a web site isn’t going to change the mode of use, would it? Just because you make a site look more like a tablet app doesn’t mean that users working in different modes will respond by acting the same way they do in a tablet app, right?

According to Payne, in fact, users do change their behavior, at least to some degree, in response to a more touch-like design. The USAToday site is not dependent on individual page loads but a smoother, less laggy swiping mechanic that engages the user even on the desktop. He said that better flow and left to right movement of the new design is in fact resulting in better engagement with the content. In essence, he suggested, when you break the longstanding tradition of browser mechanics, then people’s behaviors actually change. When you invoke a more app-like architecture that is not bouncing people from page load to page load within a field of tiny ad boxes that also promise to bounce them from a site, you are modeling behaviors that are closer to TV and print.  Perhaps they are less apt to bounce across as many sites. The degree of focus we often find occurring on touch devices may start appearing on the desktop.

Well, maybe. I am still not convinced that mode of use is at least as important as design in determining user behavior. But I will be the first to agree that the desktop browser is among the least comfortable and engaging environments for media consumption man has invented. But productivity demands that the mouse and keyboard will be with us for some time to come. Much as I like the redesign of USAToday, it craves to be touched, not clicked.

Still, Payne’s main point from a marketing perspective is that designs like these clear the field for much more engaging advertising. In a phrase he used several times in his keynote, the singular slide in or full page ad takeovers replace the five or eight “little boxes” ads used to occupy on a traditional browser site. While many ad clicks do still work in the traditional way of opening a new tab to a landing page, the ideal formats for this experience bring the deeper marketing message into the app-like architecture.

“We move every pixel we can off the page to make every device a marketing platform,” says Payne.  

We also get a new level of intrusiveness with which users have to contend. Every hub at USAToday.com that I have loaded also includes a slide-in ad unit that occupies the right quarter and need to be closed in order to see the full screen. This surely creates a great lift for the advertiser, because the ad requires an action to clear it and forces at least a passing glance at the unit. I am less pleased as a user that I have to push an ad out of the way whenever I move to a new section in order to enjoy the content.

Regardless, there is an important underlying point to the USAToday redesign that speaks to how the architecture of the Web as we have known it discourages engagement. And it is an interesting counterpoint to the last decade of behavioral targeting, which focuses so tightly on tracking behaviors and chasing all of these users who a browser-based, hyper-linked Web architecture sent scurrying to millions of sites.

You can see Payne’s entire keynote at the OMMA Premium display site

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2 comments about "Can We Retrain Desktop Users To Behave Like Tablet Owners?".
  1. Reg Charie from DotCom-Productions , November 9, 2012 at 6:56 p.m.
    I would never opt for a layout like USA Today's for a desktop computer. I want to read the text, not look at photos. Yahoo and Google understand this.
  2. Pete Austin from Triggered Messaging , November 10, 2012 at 5:22 a.m.
    I tried USA Today, but it seems barely functional on desktop. Most of the things that I thought should be linked didn't react and the "ears" are only present on a few pages. IMO if you want tile-like designs then the Daily Mail is simpler and better: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/home/index.html