Mobile continues to be one of the hottest topics in publishing—and for good reason. Mobile media consumption continues its dramatic rise while the platform proves difficult for publishers trying to hold and monetize audiences. Adapting content to fit mobile’s small screens and fast-paced interactions has been a struggle. And the mobile ad user experience has often ranged from poor to painful.
At Publishing Executive Live: Summit on Digital Media, leading publishers explored some of these persistent mobile challenges and shared a number of tactics to overcome them. The panel, “Mastering the Small Screen: How Publishers Are Making Mobile Work,” featured Mitch Rouda, president of eMedia at Farm Journal Media; Shawn Lowe print, mobile, and operations director at DuJour Media; and Gretchen Tibbits, COO of LittleThings.com and formerly of ESPN and Maxim.
The panelists, which serve a mix B2B, niche, and consumer audiences, employ a variety of approaches to distributing mobile content. Farm Journal, for example, offers an SMS messaging service to keep farmers up-to-date on the latest changes in crop prices. DuJour enhances its print luxury magazine through a branded app, adding links and interactive elements to each issue.
While at ESPN, Tibbits helped develop an app that provides personalized game updates to fans. Despite these unique mobile experiences, all three panelists agreed that mobile requires different editorial approaches from those used in print and even web platforms. Still, the goal of that content remains the same, said panelists—to serve readers quality information they want, how and when they want it.
Following are 8 takeaways from the discussion on mastering the small screen.
- Keep It Short & Simple. Tibbits of LittleThings.com encouraged publishers to keep content simple on mobile and avoid overly enhanced pages. “You literally need the pages to go faster [on mobile], so less is more in that environment.” Reader demand is also moving toward shorter and simpler content, added Rouda of Farm Journal Media. “What readers want on mobile is 80 words. That’s what we have to do now—write less and less about more and more.”
- Create Mobile Content That’s Urgent & Relevant. Along with short content, Rouda advised publishers to create urgent messages. “If you’re going to send a notification it has to be something people are willing to be bothered with on their phone, so it has to be urgent.” As an example, Rouda cited Farm Journal’s SMS messaging business, which updates farmers on fast-changing crop prices and shares related news. The information is vital to farmers’ businesses and it’s timely because the market changes frequently. “Those commodity prices are great,” added Tibbits. “They’re both urgent and important, and if you can capture both of those, that’s the golden ticket.”
- A Good Partner Is Key. Especially for a small publisher, a technology partner that can develop the mobile product and provide analytics is critical, said Lowe of DuJour. Lowe said that without the help of his app developer, MAZ, DuJour would not have been able to grow its audience as quickly. “I was able to take the process that I knew with print, and transform the PDFs we created into content that could be digested on mobile. I could push issues out through the app, and all the sudden I had an audience.”
- Personalize Mobile Apps. Publishers should let readers control the type of content they receive and how often they receive it on mobile, said Tibbits. “I frequently hold up ESPN as a great example of this because, from the day I started working there, they were clear, ‘We’re not a broadcast company. We’re here to serve the fan.’” An example of this personalization is ESPN’s game update notifications, which cover users’ favorite teams. Tibbits added that ESPN continues to be at the forefront of personalized apps. “They know what consumers want and when they want it, and they’re exploring deeper and deeper into that [with their apps].”
- Use Good Data to Guide Mobile Product Development. Publishers need mechanisms to collect data about reader behavior and interests on mobile in order to develop compelling content. “The more you know about your customer, the easier it is to serve the right content at the right frequency without crossing a line and damaging your brand,” said Tibbits. The panelists noted several important metrics they watch for this, including time spent with an article and clicks.
- There Are Many Ways to Monetize Mobile. Rouda offered three ways Farm Journal is monetizing mobile: by monetizing its SMS service through paid subscriptions (roughly 10% of its users pay $120 a year for the service), through sponsorships (sponsors receive billing at the top of the SMS messages), and with ads. “One of the best parts of selling ads on mobile is the targeting,” said Rouda. “We know every single phone, every single demographic of our subscribers. If you want to send a message to guys that have 2,000 acres of soybeans that are on the west side of Iowa, we can ping their phones within four minutes.”
- “Mobilize” Your Fan Club. A mobile app is for your fan club, said Rouda. “The average user on our website consumes three pages a visit. The average consumer on our app consumes 15 pages a visit. And it’s not because the experience is so much nicer on mobile.” The app users—a small portion of Farm Journal’s overall audience—are the superfans, the most engaged portion of the audience. Farm Journal continues to test new ways to harness that engagement.
- Don’t Get Distracted By the Shiny New Toy. Tibbits offered this piece of advice. She argued that mobile is the new toy all publishers want to play with because they feel they have to, but she cautioned publishers not to lose sight of their audience. “Take a step back and ask yourself, ‘What does our audience want from us and how do we deliver that best using the technology that’s available today? Then, let’s anticipate what they’re going to want in the future.’” Although mobile requires a new approach to content and design, the end goal is still the same as the print magazine or website—to serve quality content that an audience wants to read. Mobile is just another tool for publishers to accomplish this.
Ellen Harvey is a freelance writer and editor who covers the latest technologies and strategies reshaping the publishing landscape. She previously served as the Senior Editor at Publishing Executive and Book Business.