Commentary

The Brand's New Clothes

Apparently, my daughter was born a native genius. From the time she was three, "I know, Dad," has been her persistent retort to any lesson I try to teach her.

Don't taunt the cat.

"I know, Dad."

Don't forget to finish the math assignment

"I know, Dad."

Just because Theresa dyed her hair scarlet red doesn't mean you have to.

"I know, D... no, wait. Why not?"

Boys only want one thing.

"I know, Dad."

No, you think you know, but you don't really know.

"No, Dad, I really do 'know know' that."

Huh? Wait a second, how does she "know, know" that?
 
This is about the way I feel when I remind media brands that every emerging platform confronts them with both a threat and an opportunity. By not taking the new media seriously, they risk losing the category they may own elsewhere to some upstart startup that better understands the Web or mobile. And at the same time, the new platform gives older, perhaps fading brands, the opportunity to refresh themselves and gain an early shard of mindshare.

They know that. But do they really know know?

So it is gratifying to see old-line brands Time and Associated Press bring to the most nascent of mobile platforms, the iPhone, two of the best Web apps I have seen on the device.

Time Mobile for the iPhone makes excellent use of the sliding menus and oversized screen for images.  The magazine's top stories scroll sideways into full text that fits the screen perfectly. You can drill into the news categories or just gets a scroll of the top headlines.

But it is the editorial sculpting that works best here. Rather than mobilize the Web site or the magazine, the brand curates its vast base of data for the phone by featuring its blog content, a series of Q&As, quotes of the day and photo essays. There is a solid sense of what works on mobile, not the least of which is a well-chosen image to set the scene for each story. The headlines are informative enough to give the news grazer a quick overview of things without drilling into a story.

I can't remember that last time I cracked open a Time magazine or even bothered hitting its Web site. But by taking the lead in news magazines on my iPhone, the brand reminds me that it hosts the Swampland political blog, James Poniewozik's smart TV criticism and dedicated areas of Middle East and China coverage.

It always seemed to me that mobilizing magazine brands was the toughest sell for mobile data. So many of the print brands only half-succeeded in making the transition to the Web and convincing readers that a monthly or weekly news source really could work in real time. Can many, if any, of them really make that next leap of immediacy to mobile? I don't know if they will do any better on mobile than they fared online, but Time makes a fair case for itself by locating and packaging its mobile-worthy assets and by leveraging the iPhone interface to make deep content visible at the surface.

Forget the touchscreen and application integration. One of the real advances in mobile interface is that simple telescoping/sliding interface in Safari that lets you open up a subject heading to see more headlines quickly. Being able to expand and contract a folder of data so quickly is a perfect browsing mechanism for mobile. Time Mobile demonstrates better than any iPhone app I have seen how well a good interface can compress mountains of data even for a phone.


But Time Mobile gets trumped in some respects by AP Mobile News Network for iPhone (also available on WAP at www.apnews.com). While this site is not as visually attractive or as effectively branded as Time Mobile, it has customization and image-overlay features that are more forward-leaning. The top-line menu offers direct links into a search bar, local news, the full range of AP news categories and a settings area that customizes the feeds. Some of the stories, like the Oklahoma tornado tragedy, have thumbnails that drop you into slideshows. The real value of the otherwise workmanlike site is in the customization. You can turn on or off most of the feeds to create a personal home page of headlines. This is the sort of deep personalization we need to make Web content better match the personal ethos of the platform.

But the gee-whiz feature at AP is the multimedia. The slide shows fill the screen with still images -- but a simple screen tap overlays a deep caption. Again, leveraging the technology effectively can compress the data so that both imagery and text have room to breathe.

Both Time and AP applications point toward information architectures on mobile that are about compression, not just brevity. Both advertisers and content developers started mentioning to me over a year ago that mobile users were more than willing to spend inordinate amounts of time consuming content on phones, if they found something that really interested them. The limitations of the form disappear as the relevance grows. The trick seems to be in making a wide and shallow surface of data where the user can find that relevance, and then the publisher can supply a trove beneath it for deep drilling. Both Time Mobile and AP Mobile News Network get us closer to this model.

Now, how these old and trusted news brands also innovate on the ad side is another question. It would be a shame to clutter these strong interfaces with the usual banners and text slugs. What is the point of developing novel paths to content, if the ad formats just tug us backwards into the tired and familiar? I for one would love to see publishers and advertisers work together in earnest to make the ad models match rather than clash with the architectures.  

I hope they know know that.
 

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