There is an apocryphal story about the great vaudevillian Ed Wynn struggling with the limitations of early radio. In the mid-1920s, Wynn was a comic star on Broadway, and according to the story he got tapped to do an experimental broadcast in a New York City radio studio. This was one of the first attempts to use the emerging technology for entertainment purposes. Locked in a booth with a massive microphone and not much else, Wynn performed one of his popular acts. He mugged. He joked. He sweated through all the routines that had audiences holding their bellies in joyful pain just a few blocks away on most nights. When he was done, he scowled at the silent microphone and said, “Hell of a thing to get a laugh out of.”
I recall this shard of communications lore as I watch major media valiantly experiment with mobile extensions. Now that I have gone through countless mobile iterations of newspapers, newsmagazines and TV news outlets and seen their numbing sameness, I am feeling a bit like Ed Wynn. This is a hell of a device to get some branding out of.
I got on the trail of mobile branding because of a very fine mobile product that raised a basic question in my mind: how do you balance the need for hyper-efficient mobile communications with the needs of media branding on this platform? After I published last week’s column on the weak support for mobile cross-promotions during the Super Bowl, CBS’ mobile unit insisted to me that the TV plugs had worked well for them. CBS Sportsline had a prominent push in the first quarter after several run-up mentions during those 50 or so hours of pre-game show. The mobile servers got a substantial spike for the next hour, suggesting that a lot of viewers were more awake than I.
It turns out that the mobile CBS SportsLine product is a good example of clean, lean, task-driven mobile content. Rather than push a photo or a long scroll of headlines, it drops fans right into scores for the major leagues. Isn’t this precisely what a mobile user wants? But like a lot of mobile product I have seen lately, this raises the questions of how a mobile-centric content application effectively reminds the reader of the brand behind it. In order to serve me well as a content consumer, to get the barest information I want and need, the brand really has to get the hell out of the way. SportsLine does that very well, here, but it seems to me that as the content becomes more efficient (like sport scores or stock quotes) it becomes more challenging for publishers to maintain a distinct brand identity. How do you communicate voice, content mix, visual style and quality on miniature real estate?
Many of the newspapers and magazines that are pouring their content online seem to have faced this issue already. The content buckets (news, business, sports, etc.) are the same across the brands. CBS News, NYTimes.com, and WashingtonPost.com all have respectable mobile extensions, but it is hard to discern the difference among them once you scroll down from the top line logo. Where will the brand differentiation take place? I asked this very question of mobile marketers and aggregators on a panel I moderated at OMMA East last year, and the consensus at the time seemed to be that users bring their existing media relationships with them to mobile. OK, maybe -- but I am pretty sure that is not a permanent answer.
There are many possible answers to this challenge, and I already see publishers playing around with them. Across its mobile products, for instance, CBS promotes its SMS notifications, which use SMS pushes to keep the brand top of mind and its identity persistent. My text inbox is already cluttered with daily reminders from multiple content sources, however, so I am not sure whether SMS is going to be a long-term solution.
Having a brand that is bolted to your content is the most effective way to mobilize an online identity, I am finding. Slate.com’s mobile site leads with its signature front-page graphic, and it leverages those familiar online content wells like Today’s Paper and smartass headlines. The Week’s SMS alerts do an excellent job of communicating the summarizing voice of the publication, because these are disciplines the magazine exercises every week in print. USA Today, which arguably has the most experience in the mobile space of any new brand, is far and away the smoothest news presence right now. That identifiable use of color and font style to mark simple content categories like Money, Life, etc. translate to a handset very well. I always know where I am and which brand is speaking to me when I use USA Today’smobile site.
The branding issue may not be meaningful for media right now because everyone is just feeling their way onto the new platform. Just getting a toehold on handsets is important, for now. We’ll figure out later what place the mobile extension has in a company’s brand strategy. But that stage will come, and I think some media companies have an early, natural edge, but only because their existing formats happen to communicate their identities well on mobile. I am not sure that is a permanent or universal answer either.
Eventually, Ed Wynn did “get a laugh out of this thing” but only by bringing in a live audience. He was among the first to do so because he recognized early the inherent frustration of squeezing old formats into new technologies. Radio itself found its laugh by moving away from the received genres of vaudeville and film. Instead, it re-engineered an older theatrical form, the clever domestic banter of parlor-room comedy, and this became “situation comedy.” I am inclined to think that media branding is a bigger issue on mobile than we now acknowledge, and that the most powerful and successful examples will come from answers we haven’t yet imagined.
The most creative and daring content providers will have the last laugh.