The Mobile Online Content Puzzle

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It’s a strange new world in which content consumption and distribution will never be the same – and the money models are shifting. Here’s what the future holds.

By Dan Rowinski

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In the past few years, the Internet and Web have radically changed the fundamental nature of content distribution. Web 1.0 was about creating a new platform for distribution. Web 2.0 brought us social sharing, virality and a wave of remarkable new content contributors through easy creation and distribution channels such as blogs and Twitter. A new age is upon us. It’s the Mobile Revolution, and like the two iterations of the Web before it, it’s disrupting the nature of content consumption and distribution.

For publishers in the business of creating and distributing content, mobile is a strange and relatively new world. Companies are still devising mobile content strategies, figuring out what works, what engages consumers and how to make money. But there is no silver bullet for creating a perfect mobile experience.

Mobile Web vs. Native Apps

There’s been a debate over the past few years about whether mobile apps (for iOS or Android, although increasingly for other platforms) or mobile browsing will reign when it comes to delivering content. Apps, at least in the beginning, seemed to be winning out. Apple’s App Store, which made its debut in 2008, was new and exciting and democratized software distribution. Publishers were happy to get in line and give this app thing a try while trusting their old websites to function well on mobile.

Raj Aggarwal, CEO and co-founder of Boston-based Localytics, a mobile analytics and engagement platform, explains the difference between apps and the mobile Web this way: “There is a significant difference in the end users’ expectations. Mobile Web content is consumed in a browser that is often limited in functionality. As a result, content needs to be kept at a lowest common denominator so it works across a large number of platforms.”

Lowest common denominator. Doesn’t sound like a winning formula for content creators.

The Trouble With Apps

Here’s the catch with apps: It’s expensive to develop native apps for a variety of different platforms such as iOS, Android, Windows Phone and BlackBerry. Apps are difficult to build and maintain, and monetization (through subscriptions, ads and in-app purchases) is complicated.

“When it comes to choosing a content strategy between mobile Web and native apps, the key issues to consider are richness of experience, performance and cost of distribution. And a lot of this comes down to the kind of content you offer. For example, if your experience is primarily about displaying and interacting with online content, then mobile Web may be right for you,” says Peter Farago, VP of marketing at San Francisco-based mobile analytics platform Flurry.

Mobile Web Content Is No Picnic Either

A mobile Web strategy may work better for many publications. By developing for the mobile Web, a company can focus on cross-platform strategies that will work on whatever device its customer happens to be using. The goal is to make it as easy as possible for the consumer to reach the content, and in that guise, the mobile Web is not fundamentally different from a desktop-based Web. But the mobile Web can be limiting, too.

Many publishers want to easily deploy rich media such as videos and slideshows, location-aware advertisements and content (such as weather or traffic data). Through a mobile browser, that’s not currently possible — and it’s where native applications have an advantage.

“As with traditional Web, mobile Web is good for discovery: putting your content in front of new users who don’t know about you yet,” says Giles Phillips, director of user experience at Boston-based Brightcove. “The first and primary goal of the mobile Web experience must, therefore, be to convert first-time users into engaged return users. You want to leverage your content to convert their initial impressions into an interest in having a long-term relationship with you.”

Engagement, Phillips says, is the primary difference between how users will interact with your brand between the mobile Web and native apps. If users are navigating to your publication through a mobile browser, they are likely looking for timely, topical information. It is the nature of mobile devices, especially smartphones. People are on the go and are not consuming content in large doses as they would when sitting at a computer. Yet, if consumers become engaged and loyal to a brand, they are more likely to download (and possibly pay) for an app.

“There is no choice between the mobile Web and applications: Any publisher must consider both,” says Mark Johnson, CEO of mobile content discovery application Zite. “A well-delivered strategy recognizes the preferences of its readers (Do they use Pinterest or Twitter?), the natural bias of its content (long-form vs. short-form visual, etc.), and the natural ebb and flow of many of these platforms. The formula should be: execute, measure, refine and reload. … Typically the trade-off for mobile content has been between efficiency (write once) vs. beauty. Luckily, with the rise of HTML5, this trade-off is eroding slowly, but it will take some time for it to go away entirely.”

Write Once, Run Everywhere

And then there’s HTML5. At its most simple level, HTML5 is a set of Web-based technologies that holds the potential of a true “write once, run everywhere” strategy. Theoretically, a publication created in HTML5 will function the same on a desktop, tablet or smartphone. That promise is not entirely yet a reality because HTML5 is still a technology in development. Yet, HTML5 can still help most publishers right now.

Content apps and mobile websites, by their very nature, are simpler to create and maintain than other application categories such as games or utilities. Content apps do not put a lot of stress on a mobile device’s computer or graphics processor and often do not need specific device capabilities such as a camera or the GPS unit. Hence, content apps are best delivered through a browser-centric approach.

That doesn’t mean that the mobile Web is the only option for HTML5 mobile content. An app can be developed in HTML5 and then “wrapped” with native code and deployed to the various app stores. This approach is known as a “hybrid” — half browser, half native — and can give publishers an easier route to developing for both the mobile Web and native apps.

“HTML5 has definitely created more flexibility for publishers and has helped make responsive Web design a viable option for publishers with a blended content mix,” Phillips says.

The Hybrid Approach

Several large news publications have embraced HTML5 and browser-based approaches to give consumers an app-like experience through the mobile browser. The first and most famous example of this is the Financial Times, which took its application out of the Apple App Store and created a mobile website built entirely through HTML5. Another prominent newspaper, The Boston Globe, has also embraced the mobile Web and HTML5. TheBostonGlobe.com is the paper’s answer to the mobile revolution, and it is designed to fit on any device through responsive design.

“We embraced responsive Web design to build a site that would be able to adapt and evolve as more of our readers look for our content on nondesktop devices. This has been an experience that allowed us to think aggressively about how to optimize for each and every device and also has given us new opportunities to monetize mobile page views with a single buy,” says Jeff Moriarty, VP of digital products at The Boston Globe.

Responsive design also addresses one of the main problems with developing for mobile devices: making content look good on a variety of screen sizes. Smartphones tend to have screens that vary from 3.5 inches to 5.3 inches while tablets range from 7 inches to 10.1 inches. It is impossible to develop an app that will look great on all of these devices. And building apps for a variety of screens drives developers crazy.

The key to responsive design is that it will reformat content to adapt to the screen it is on. Even on a desktop, if a user changes the size of a browser window, responsive design will change how the content appears to optimize the user experience. It’s a powerful and useful concept that will help publishers with the deployment of content across the mobile landscape.

“We have to now think about how content performs differently from the biggest screens to the smallest, how that content is organized and even how headlines are written from platform to platform,” Moriarty says. “I personally now have an Android-powered watch that displays news headlines on a 1-inch screen and a Google TV that I use on a 50-inch television from 10 feet away. How we think about those two complete opposite use cases is going to be even more and more important as screens and screen sizes continue to proliferate.”

Mobile = Web

Such a rapid growth industry like mobile has not existed possibly in the history of the planet, and the dynamics are fluid.

“The future is always uncertain, so it is key for publishers to stay flexible. Keeping content portable should be a major focus area,” says André T. M. Alguero, SVP of technology for Digitas. Alguero says that publishers must focus on their content strategies as a whole. The Web team should not be different from the mobile team.

For all intents and purposes, the Web now is mobile and mobile is the Web. There is no difference. Being flexible and understanding the general concepts of mobile content delivery relies on understanding that basic fact.

“This isn’t a challenge that is going away, and it’s not going to be easy to fix as it will take a level of experimentation and innovation that many are uncomfortable with,” Zite’s Johnson says. “In a world where publishers are struggling to figure out their business models online (display ad revenues at the major newspapers are declining alarmingly), they must adapt to the mobile world. But if they fail to evolve with the change, then the publisher landscape will likely look very different in 10 years.”

The wrong choice when deciding on how to approach mobile content delivery is to try and force a traditional media strategy into the mobile environment. Publishers need to realize that the world, and even the Web itself, has changed.

“Mobile has its own unique set of limitations, considerations and usage contexts. Publishers should embrace the device for what it is, and not fight it,” Phillips says. “The biggest thing is remembering to truly reflect upon the mobile usage context and how it impacts your users’ behaviors and engagement patterns. Invest time and energy to understand your users: As the consumers of your content, they are ultimately the most important dimension of your content strategy.”

Dan Rowinski is a technology reporter for ReadWriteWeb, a SAY Media property. This report first ran in the Fall/Winter 2012 issue of SAY Magazine.