The Revenge Of The Mobile Web

The latest comScore reports on smartphone platform breakdowns and media property reach underscore the wisdom of taking a cross-channel approach to mobile development. The collection of media brands dominating the app environment in terms of reach is much narrower than the list comprising combined app and mobile Web reach. It speaks to the deeper content discovery that is available on the open Web and still unavailable to apps.

The inherent limitations in content discovery on apps are at the center of a paidcontent op-ed from Jon Lund of memit on “Why Tablet Magazines Are A Failure.” He cites Alliance for Audited Media stats showing that for many major titles like National Geographic, Popular Science, Cosmo and even Wired, somewhere between 5% and 12% of subscribers are using digital editions.

On the narrow topic of digital editions I would beg to differ a bit with Lund on the “failure” of the format. These AAM numbers do not account for the many authenticated subscribers of print versions who regularly move across print and digital experience. Nor do they address the ways in which digital editions aid in subscriber retention. And whatever the weakness in the top-line subscriber numbers, the gulf between engagement metrics in these digital editions and the Web sites from those same magazine brands is massive. Time spent in these digital editions rivals print in a way that few, if any, digital platforms before them ever did.

I agree that the digital edition ecosystem suffers from being ghettoized in these awful digital newsstand settings that stupidly virtualize an analog-world magazine discovery mechanism that is pretty much irrelevant to digital discovery. Flipboard, Zite and the rest have proven out at least one superior model. Still, the business case for digital editions is more involved than just top-line digital-only subscription numbers.

I still maintain that we are waiting for a next iteration of the app ecosystem that opens the content up to the kind of search discovery mechanism that energized a longer tail of content over the last decade on the Web. There is something about the app economy and discovery mechanism that feels retro -- with a cost structure that harkens back to the days of steep “carriage fees” for content on major portals.

Speaking of major portals, comScore’s numbers motivated me to play around more deliberately with the latest mobile Web iterations of major brands. FT, for instance, which walked away from the app store model years ago, is still the standard bearer in Web app development for news outlets. The company just refreshed its smartphone Web app, and it shines. At this point FT is demonstrating that for most content providers, a Web app can do much of what a dedicated app can do. 

Chief among the functions the new FT for phones adds is a myFT section that allows the user to store articles for later viewing on any of the other FT iterations for tablet or Web. What I like especially about the FT implementation is the way the publisher leverages this saved article space to push other personalized recommendations and your own viewing history. It recognizes that anyone accessing the myFT section is likely in a more lean-back mode of content consumption and ready for a deeper drill.

Yahoo’s persistent dominance in mobile reach prompted me to revisit its mobile web presence. While many people gush over the prettiness of Yahoo’s weather app/widget (and it enjoys ranking among comScore’s top 15 apps) I am not a fan of the portal’s core news app. Rather than integrate the range of functions like Flickr, mail, etc. into the main app, it wants to kick me out to a host of other dedicated apps.

I actually find the mobile Web experience for Yahoo far superior to the app experience. It behaves the way I want a portal to behave, surfacing top-line headlines across the usual content suspects -- news, stocks, sports. It leverages HTML5 very well in allowing me literally dial across a menu wheel into any of the key content verticals. Better still, the app allows me to move into Yahoo’s other primary functions more seamlessly than does the dedicated app.

Ask most media companies and they will tell you that the mobile Web is good for discovery and customer acquisition, but dedicated apps are good for much much deeper engagement with the core loyal audience. Most metrics seem to bear this out. But I wonder if that will change. I notice that on my phone deck ever more shortcut icons are driving me into ever more sophisticated web apps that finally blur the lines between the two mobile paths.  

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