Commentary

Portability Is NOT Mobility

Can media brands really mobilize? My iPhone home pages are now ballooning with branded media apps, and I am starting to pay closer attention to personal news usage patterns on mobile. The content providers are piling up and every news source is rushing to the platform: Time, USAToday, HuffPo, APNews, NYTimes, All Things D, FT, WSJ, NPR, CNNMoney, People -- all currently on my phone.

 

Is it enough to say that all of these apps really are just akin to Web browser bookmarks? Do I just dip into each at various rates in the same way I do on a Web browser? Are any of these news sources able to distinguish themselves within the limitations that even the broader application canvas allows on a phone? I am sure there are rigorous market researchers hot on the trail of these questions, all armed with focus group samples and panel extrapolation algorithms. But until we start seeing the results of such studies, you are stuck with me, my iPhone and decidedly unscientific impressions.

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First, I am noticing that I don't need an app to stay wedded to a brand. I consult my browser link to CNN's mobile site at least as often as I open the applications for other media brands. In fact, it seems to me that the mobile Web imposes on CNN an editorial discipline that many of the news apps are lacking. I default to it in part because CNN is my first Web news source anyway, but the mobile site triages the top stories more effectively. I am starting to see a lot of content bloat in apps as publishers pursue the mistaken idea that I want all of their content on my phone.

Apps like WSJ, NYTimes, CNNMoney, Time, etc. are so eager to pile on the "value" that the end user has to wait for the content to update and/or cache and then often traverse interfaces that are a bit too clever. Time.com and WSJ are cases in point. Both are admirable attempts to make much of their massive Web sites portable and manageable. But that doesn't mean they are necessarily mobile. I have to think twice before I open either because I know I am in for a deep dive. In the case of CNNMoney, I know I will have to wait almost 20 seconds for the data to update. Portability is not mobility.

The information icons I find myself drawn to habitually are the ones that have pre-targeted the content effectively. IGN.com has a very narrowly focused app that gives me the latest video game reviews in seconds. Daily Beast's Web app site focuses only on one feature, the Cheat Sheet, which aggregates must-see news. Wired magazine has an app dedicated to product reviews. People.com wisely brands its app not as People.com but as a "People Celebrity Tracker." This app only has three tabs for news photos and an encyclopedia of celebrities that the user can customize. In the cases of IGN and Wired, these are not brands that I consult habitually online, but they have found their way into my deck because they are not just portable brands but they offer targeted content that maps against my mobile needs.

Compared to the other news apps on my phone, it seems to me that each of these more targeted providers has taken the daring but necessary step of serving my needs rather than their branding fantasies. I am sure there are media brands I would like to dwell in for extended periods by hopping across their many news categories. And sometimes I do drill around the Times and FT. But generally my mobile habits and situations favor content that comes to me rather than makes me go to it.

And even when I do lean back a bit more and browse the troves of material some of the more dense news apps offer, it is tough to distinguish among the brands. By the time I hit the third or fourth app, the headlines are pretty much the same. It is too early to know how these brands distinguish themselves on mobile, but it is interesting to reflect on the early attempts.

All Things D relies on its personalities. The people (Walt, Kara, Peter) are the brands.

Both FT and USAToday stand out visually. FT uses that signature beige background and pushes its charting effectively.

While I find the rest of its interface too overwhelming, Time Mobile has the cool new "image flow" feature, which turns a typical scroll of headline into an illustrated "cover flow" experience with illustrations and headlines.

USAToday still has the TV console look and feel, as well as the rainbow menu and strong visuals.

Times, WSJ, and many others look disarmingly similar. In some ways the depth of the content actually works against their branding effort because it limits the design possibilities. When you are piling on that much content, then you have to resign yourself to long scrolls and a lot of tabs and lateral scrolling menus.

The lack of differentiation is clearest when you use some of the mobile aggregators. Fluent News assembles links to the mobile Web versions of the major news providers. The difference among the links is minor.

Now, to be sure, the commoditization of news content is not new. The search-driven Web already managed to get us far down that path. I wonder if mobile makes brand differentiation even harder, especially if the content provider is determined to pour so much content into the mobile mix.

As I ponder my own mobile habits now a year into the mobile app era, it seems to me that apps create as many problems as they seemed to solve when it comes to delivering content on phones. On one hand, the app ecosystem makes brands more visible. We now have an alerting system that keeps the brands top of mind. And developers have much more latitude in crafting unique interfaces and integrating multimedia.

At the same time, apps are inviting overdevelopment and may even be giving publishers too large a canvas that lets them sidestep the essential question: What is my mobile value proposition to the consumer?

12 comments about "Portability Is NOT Mobility".
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  1. Adam Gordon from The Oya Group, September 3, 2009 at 2:42 p.m.

    There seems to be substantial confusion between a brand as a noun (e.g. a corporate identity or logo mark) and the brand as a verb (e.g. the experience offered by a company to its customers).

    The value of CNN and other brands mentioned here is much in in the experience they offer rather than the fact that any particular thing happens under the aegis of a certain mark.

    If CNN, Time, or All Things D provide a great experience, then you'll continue to go back, (pretty much) regardless of what brand it happens to appear on the page. Ironically, this tends to increase the value of the brand-as-a-noun.

  2. Steve Smith from Mediapost, September 3, 2009 at 3:15 p.m.

    Adam,

    I think I see the distinction you are trying to make, although I don't think the noun/verb split gets to it. The problem for me is that the distinction between the media experience and the corporate identity is moot. The experience within the app is not discrete or compelling enough from app to app to matter. My point is that a real challenge for the media companies is that they have problems creating a media experience that I can identify with a specific brand in this environment.

  3. Randy Haldeman, September 3, 2009 at 3:17 p.m.

    Well said Steve (as usual)

    The first year of web apps is similar to the first year of many new communication modalities:

    -- The first years of TV had many shows filmed with one stationary camera -- similar to the feel of performances in a theater, instead of taking advantage of a camera's mobility and a production team's editing capabilities.

    -- Decades later, corporate web pages started out as online brochures -- which didn't take advantage of the interactivity or customization features of the Internet.

    -- Now today, the advent of mobile applications is taking the form of a portable Internet, as you noted, instead of taking advantage of the mobility and voice features of a mobile phone.

    We need to quickly get to "Mobile 2.0" where the intrinsic value of mobility is the core value that developers build applications for.

  4. Michael Senno from New York University, September 3, 2009 at 4:47 p.m.

    Good observations - apps have definitely become commoditized to an extent and simply an extension of the web, however some brands do it well. And if they do it well, it creates a differentiated sponsorship opportunity and/or incremental advertising opportunity that can earn new revenue if content owners sell it separate, as they should.

    Curious how the new ESPN apps due out soon will differentiate themselves.

  5. Howie Goldfarb from Blue Star Strategic Marketing, September 3, 2009 at 5:48 p.m.

    Steve

    Great post! Yes mobile web is portable in the same way your laptop is. And yes mobile web is the same web as on your laptop minus the large screen. But portable and mobile are not the same as you noted. Just like SMS Loyalty push programs where you sign up for future correspondence is just like email. And twitter is just clutter and white noise when tweets get above 10-20 per day. Makes us all walking boxes of spam. At least until the blocking/filter software catches up like the stuff available for Firefox that I love so dearly. Phone based spam portability!

    I truly think the future is tablets like the kindle but will full web enabled video and web browsing which will bring phones back to being mostly a phone again (aside from when your out somewhere you can't take your tablet!).
    We all want bigger screens or else why do so many people hock their lives and even kids to borrow money for big screen HDTV's at home. But this doesn't change what your post is about.

    The challenge of getting your app, or website, or content viewed/used and how do you make yourself different and thus desired by the public. But I will gladly take a commoditized mobile space/web space over the ancient semi-monopolies any day. And having such choice on as many platforms and places as possible is a good thing.

    I also wonder how will they make money as a content providers. The hardware and network folks will make their money. You know mobile web ad blockers will be developed. Pay per view? That would truly end commoditization by forcing content to be better than it is.

  6. Matthew Snyder from ADObjects Inc, September 3, 2009 at 10:58 p.m.

    I enjoyed this thoughtful article Steve. You hit the nail on the head of the discrepancies with mobile usability even with applications, that one could say is a precursor to mobile-web apps, but that may not make sense either. Lots if innovation with RSS, but the seemless brand engagement experience and mobility is still open to lots of innovation. We just had the earthquake with the iPhone, but the big Tsunami wave is going to be interesting here... and one thing I can say is this touched a nerve in that user -experience side of this needed disruption

  7. Chuck Sacco, September 4, 2009 at 12:21 p.m.

    Love the focus on the value proposition for the consumer. Too many times we're seeing brands start from the perspective of what they they want to do with their existing website as opposed to what their customers will really want and need.

    But then that's an overarching problem with many companies...to much inward focus and not the right consumer focus.

  8. Steve Smith from Mediapost, September 4, 2009 at 1:26 p.m.

    Thanks everyone for the "atta boys" additions and exceptions. But how about all of your mobile media use? What are you noticing about how you access content on mobile phones? Most of our readers are among the most advanced and experienced mobilistas around. How do you use this stuff and what are your mobile news gathering habits like?

  9. Sam Feuer, September 4, 2009 at 6:31 p.m.

    Excellent insight from everyone here :)

  10. Randy Haldeman, September 4, 2009 at 7 p.m.

    Steve asked "What are you noticing about how you access content on mobile phones?"

    I am a big fan of the CNN app on my iPhone. I do find it easy to navigate and pithy. Other apps, like E-Trade Pro, which links to many other financial stories, has the problem mentioned in Steve's article -- way too much info for someone on the go.

    I am also a big fan of "Man vs. Wild" and have downloaded the Discovery app for when I have a spare minute or two. I will watch a quick video of that super-stud Bear Grylis traverse an alligator-infested swamp or eat a snake for dinner and smile while doing it.

  11. John Andrews from Collective Bias, September 7, 2009 at 8:49 a.m.

    Great article Steve

    I like some of the mobile push apps that are starting to crop up. I experimented this week-end with some of the sports alert capabilities on Sportacular and found them quite useful and a great supplement to the streaming scores from various televised broadcasts (if you follow a team outside the top 25, updates can be few and far between)

    I also like the ability to tune in live to any NPR broadcast.

  12. Hans Mol, September 8, 2009 at 1:52 a.m.

    Nice article and a topic I have had numerous debates over... from my perspective mobility all boils down to relevance to the user... how quickly can I access the information, how trustworthy is the source and is it what I need.. Whether one differentiates by using an app or simply a mobi-site.. the outcome for the user should be the same....

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