Commentary

Wap-A-Matic

Speaking of bad questions...  Last week I prattled on about interview and panel "Qs" that lead to boring or empty "As." For several years now I have been asking what apparently is the worst question anyone could ask in the wireless media world: Do all publishers need to be mobile?

I have asked this question of just about every panel I have moderated, and just about every mobile marketing company, aggregator and publisher I have interviewed, and I have yet to get an insightful answer. The question is simple, maybe stupid. While it is obvious that a Web presence is as necessary to any business or publishing outfit as a phone number, does it really follow that a mobile presence is needed? Do all content providers with a Web site need to establish at least a defensive position in their segment on mobile? If they don't go mobile, could they lose their category to a current rival or, worse, a mobile-only upstart? Is it important to go mobile in order to get some mobile experience now before the eventual rush of eyeballs and competition? Better to screw up when no one is looking. All of these are potential answers to my initial bad question, but I don't actually hear them used much.

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I see a lot of WAP sites on a daily basis, and it still is not clear to me that many of them need to be there. In covering the magazine industry, for instance, I find title after title launching their m.xxx.com site. "Now you can have YaddaYadda magazine when and where you want it," say the press releases, just as predictably followed by some fawning puffery about how the YaddaYadda Monthly  reader is always "on-the-go."

In point of fact, many of these mobile sites that these "on-the-go" users musthave remain static and sparsely updated. Go to the brand's main Web site and you will be hard pressed to see the mobile extension promoted or even acknowledged. Without an active program of alerts or some other way of weaving mobile content into people's daily rituals, I just don't see how a content provider really justifies a WAP site beyond that amorphous need to be everywhere a user may be.

So I am curious what publishers will make of (and make out of) Quattro Wireless's new self-serve WAP site maker at GetMobile.com. The newly launched service automates for any site owner what Quattro has been doing for Univision, Playboy and others, which is to pull select and mobile-relevant content from the main Web site into a format that works on mobile Web browsers. The Quattro approach pretty much uses the Web site as the main feed source, so that updates to the main URL go to the WAP version. A redirector at the main Web site also detects mobile browsers and kicks traffic over to the WAP version. Publishers can market their standard URL as the mobile entryway as well.

I played around with the GetMobile service for a while, and it is a fascinating attempt to squeeze the Web experience onto mobile. The system looks at your standard Web home page and automatically extracts from it the logo and main navigation in its first pass, and then if you open an account with GetMobile it lets you customize it further. I was able to get a serviceable version of one of my publisher's sites in a half hour or so. Quattro essentially serves the WAP site for you, and in exchange you become part of its ad network and get a share of the revenue. Advertisers can come in and build ad creative and deploy it on a CPC bidding basis as well.

 A couple of sites like MommyTalk.com and Flyfish.com are already up and running on the system, and their results on a mobile browser are mixed. MommyTalk was smart enough to see that the blogs and forums were the main attraction for a mobile user and emphasized that material. I am not sure what Flyfish had in mind in their translation, which really just seems to stretch the full site into an enormous Talmud-sized scroll. In both cases, however, I see no indication from the main Web sites that a mobile version is available to users. And the inherent weakness of reconfiguring a Web site for mobile access is that it doesn't necessarily get you to rethink your brand very deeply. I am more inclined to think that many Web sites would be best served by focusing on one or two key elements from their information pool that really matter to people when they are out in the wild and shaping a mobile service around that.

Arguably, mobile could well become a first screen for many users, but that is not going to erase the inherent limitations of the platform. We just can't and won't browse the mobile Web the way we do the standard Web. There are only so many bookmarks our mobile browsers will handle comfortably, and some even top off at 20 URLs or so. SMS is not an e-mail in-box, and there are only so many alert services we can stand. My best guess is that in order to get within the even smaller circle of content friends a user allows into his more constrained mobile universe, a media brand had better make a very good case for itself and do one or two things very well.

As brands rush in and ask "how" to get into mobile, they seem to be vaulting past the more basic questions of "why" they should be on mobile. Better yet, they may ask "why" their consumers would want them on mobile.

And if the marketers and publishers come up with good answers to those questions, they should be willing to back it up with proper promotion. Unless a publisher believes it has something truly worthwhile going on mobile, and reserves some Web and print space to market it, then why should the reader care?

Which means that content providers should be asking themselves that most maddening of Philosophy 101 questions. If you build a WAP site in the mobile woods and forget to remind anyone why it is there -- is it really there?  

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