News Leadership 3.0

Posts tagged with: Mobile

December 23, 2011

6 ways to think like a “mobile first” journalist/publisher

Technology keeps changing our experience of media. This week my friend and colleague Steve Buttry (director of community engagement & social media at Journal Register Co. and Digital First Media) posted an excellent list of 10 ways to think like a Digital First journalist.

Which got me to thinking, especially in light of my recent interview with mobile design expert Luke Wroblewski—what might be unique about the mindset of “mobile first” journalists and news publishers?...

By Amy Gahran

Before I get into the mobile first news mindset, it’s worth considering why people in the news business should be putting mobile first now.

Like it or not—and whether you’re ready for it or not—a sizeable and fast-growing portion of your digital audience is already accessing your offerings via mobile devices.

According to comScore, currently half of the total U.S. mobile population (about 116 million people) use mobile media—which means they browse the mobile web, access applications, or download content using cell phones or tablets over wireless networks.

Also comScore noted: “In August 2011, 7.7% of total traffic going to newspaper sites came from mobile devices—3.3% higher than the amount of mobile traffic going to the total Internet.” And the Newspaper Association of America found recently that mobile traffic to U.S. news venues increased 65% in the last year.

In the bigger picture of digital media, IDC recently predicted that by 2015, “more U.S. internet users will access the internet through mobile devices than through PCs or other wireline devices.”

Mobile users represent a unique set of use cases that are distinct from the print, broadcast, or computer-based experience of news and information. They present different constraints, opportunities, preferences, and goals.

Rather than perpetually playing technology catch-up (a strategy that has left much of the news business struggling), savvy news organizations and journalists can use this next point of disruptive change to try to get ahead of the wave.

HALLMARKS OF THE “MOBILE FIRST” NEWS MINDSET:

1. You already use your phone for everything.

From reading the news and creating content, to keeping track of your grocery list and banking, to watching a TV show, to accessing social media, to getting alerts about crime in your neighborhood—if it’s something you do on a regular basis, you’re going to find a way to do it on your phone. Just on general principles, because you enjoy knowing what phones can do.

2. You embrace, and are curious about, the diversity of mobile devices.

You ask friends and colleagues about their phones, tablets, e-readers, and mobile gaming devices—and you get them to show you how they use them, or even let you try them out. You spend time hanging out in electronics stores, demoing the latest models.

You are not a mobile snob. You realize that every type of device, platform, form factor, mobile channel (including simple text messaging) and network access occupies its own niche. You value reaching a diverse community with your news and information, so you deliberately seek to learn why and how people use simpler, older, or less costly technology, or lower-bandwidth mobile networks. You also explore the bleeding edge of high-end devices—and everything in between.

3. You welcome constraints as a creative inspiration.

As Luke Wroblewski mentioned, thinking “mobile first” means that news publishers should “focus and prioritize your digital offerings by embracing the constraints inherent in mobile design. With responsive web design, you can set a baseline mobile experience first, then progressively enhance or adapt your layout as device capabilities change.”

This affects everything from which kinds of information you choose to gather and publish first, to which channels you use to gather, corroborate, and distribute information. You’re always focusing on identifying the core value of each piece of content—what it is, how it might vary for different users and use cases, and what’s the most effective way to convey that value across a diverse mobile landscape.

Being a mobile first journalist or publisher is rather like mastering the art skill of quick gesture drawing. Not every piece of news needs to be a finished, crafted narrative. There’s value in being about to produce a quick sketch with the tools you have in hand. It’s not just a matter of being fast, or accurate (though they both count)—it’s about being able to zero in on the essence of what matters.

Then, from your vast experience playing with a number of mobile devices, from low-end feature phones to a top-of-the-line iPad, you’ll know how to scale up your mobile news to provide a progressively richer and more rewarding mobile experience.

4. You expect divided attention.

The traditional narrative-format news story (print, broadcast, and even on the web) assumes that audience members are willing and able to provide mostly undivided attention—at least for a minute or two. These stories are constructed with a beginning, middle, and end. They are standalone, complete works of content.

But in a mobile media environment—at least for cell phones—continuous partial attention is the norm. This isn’t just a matter of people looking or walking around while using their phones. It also means that they may first encounter your news or information amidst a stream of unrelated content, such as in a Facebook newsfeed, or a Yelp comment.

Fortunately, since mobile users prize connection and efficiency, the upside of this continuous partial attention is that mobile users probably are more likely to encounter your content via some sort of direct or implied recommendation—either by getting a link from someone they know, or from a curated experience. This means that the smaller pieces of attention they’ll offer you could yield more impact—as long as you can quickly deliver value and demonstrate relevance.

5. You always consider what people might want to DO with your content.

This means that rather than focusing solely on telling a story or reporting a fact or update—as if that’s the goal in and of itself—you always consider what people will want to do with your news or information, how they might take your story further. Cell phone users in particular tend to have a very active mindset. (Tablets tend to be more of a passive media experience.)

So before you post or publish some news or information, you pause and think: What context is needed for people to determine relevance? A map? A link? A Twitter handle or hashtag to follow? Keywords? Audio? Video? Photos? In making decisions about how to assemble media components for your coverage, you give priority to items that will help users establish relevance.

...That’s how you’ll get their attention, the first step in engagement. But then, you’re also thinking about how your users might want to share your content—with others, or with themselves for future reference when they’re on a different device. Your digital audience is increasingly likely to switch from one device to another over the course of the day. The experience of your news should both follow this shift and respond to it to deliver more value.

This includes making it easy for users to bookmark something for later reading, viewing, or listening—when they’re on a device and have the time to support that deeper-dive experience.

6. You’re willing and able to tell stories in an emergent style, not just a narrative one.

This is the part that still unnerves a lot of journalists: they don’t get to define the story. Especially for mobile users, you probably won’t really be able to convey a complete story well.

This is where the Lego approach to storytelling is becoming important. It means embracing that how people experience your news and information will to some extent always resemble the blind men and the elephant. Mobile users will see and share the pieces of your content that they encounter. They will have many entry points and channels. They will be constrained by what their devices can display and network connections can support. They will not see the whole story. But they must still get some value.

This can be a good thing. By finding ways to engage with your users, especially mobile users, you’ll get to see other possible interpretations emerge while your story in unfolding in progress. In this way, reporting the news can become more collaborative and improvisational—especially in terms of knowing which questions to ask and points to clarify or amplify.

The News Leadership 3.0 blog is made possible by a grant to USC Annenberg from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

The Knight Digital Media Center at USC is a partnership with the Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism. The Center is funded by a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

February 03, 2012

Community engagement tips: Help people understand their phones and use them as media tools

By Amy Gahran

Community engagement can be a huge challenge for any media project. But for four years now, the Mobile Voices project in Los Angeles has helped immigrant and low-wage workers create stories about their lives and communities—thus empowering themselves and increasing their visibility in a society which often overlooks their many contributions.

Project coordinator Pedro Joel Espinosa explained how face-to-face interaction and consumer education, not just technology, make this project work…

Mobile Voices began as a collaboration between the Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism at the University of Southern California, and the Institute of Popular Education of Southern California (IDEPSCA), an established Los Angeles nonprofit serving the local Latino community.

Community engagement is the foundation of this media project. That focus is reflected in the core processes for designing, building, and managing Mobile Voices: participatory design and popular education. These practices emphasize involving community members in key decisions at all levels of the project—and also going out to talk to people in the community where they are, in their language, and on their terms.

The vast majority of Mobile Voices content is in Spanish. It’s a blend of personal observations, community news, event promotion, and local organizing efforts. For example, Espinosa noted that one West L.A. day laborer regularly posts stories about his community, near his local day labor center.

“He’ll often post something like, ‘We just had an accident here, somebody hit a bicyclist, watch out!’ Mostly they’re taking the role as the citizen journalist and reporting what’s going on in their neighborhood, because CNN won’t come and report on them.”

There’s a lot of interesting technology behind Mobile Voices (VozMob.net). Community members can create their own blogs and post photos, videos, audio and text directly from their cell phones. Generally these are not smartphones, but rather the simpler, less costly feature phones commonly used in lower-income and immigrant communities.

Captioned photos, like this one, are the most popular type of content posted to the site. That’s because they can be sent via multimedia messaging service (MMS), which does not require contributors to have a data plan.

But even though technology makes Mobile Voices possible, community engagement is what makes it work.

“We wouldn’t have Mobile Voices if it wasn’t for the community of day laborers and household workers,” said Espinosa. “These people are deeply committed, they show up. We have several volunteers on our core team, people who come in for weekly meetings—despite how hard it is for them to make time, especially when they aren’t getting paid. That’s because they believe in the vision of Mobile Voices.”

Mobile Voices representatives—which include staff and volunteers from IDEPSCA and also community members and site contributors—also have visited local day labor centers and other community venues to explain the project, learn what kinds of stories community members would like to share or hear, and help people learn how to use their phones to get involved. They haven’t been doing many field visits in recent months due to tight funding, but Espinosa said that whenever they have done this, they see a sharp spike in new users to the site.

Espinosa offered these tips for conducting community field visits for training and engagement.

1. Bring tangibles, such as a computer and some cell phones. “Sometimes when I go to day labor centers and talk about the Mobile Voices platform, it sounds abstract. But when people see hands-on what they can do with something they already have, then we have greater involvement.

2. Send volunteers from the community being served. “When people hear about our site from someone who looks and talks like them, maybe even someone they know personally or through friends or family, they’re more likely to pay attention and give it a try.”

3. Help people understand their wireless plans. Wireless plans, especially inexpensive no-contract plans, often have strict limits and fees for overages or access to certain features. Typically the wording of these plans is convoluted, making it hard to tell exactly what you’d get charged for. Consequently, people in low-income communities often hesitate to use their phones as tools because they’re wary of getting surprised by extra charges on their phone bill.

“We educate people about their phones, as a consumer protection service, whether or not they end up using Mobile Voices,” said Espinosa. “We tell them to bring us a bill, or tell us which carrier and plan they’re on. Then we can look up the details and explain to them in plain language what they can or can’t do without getting hit with extra fees. A lot of times consumers don’t really understand what they’ve signed up for.”

“We need to be mindful of the data plans that they have or don’t have. We don’t want to be teaching a day laborer to send multimedia messages, and then he gets a charged extra for that. Especially when you’re earning very little money, those charges can be a big problem, and they would just scare people away from using our platform.”

4. Teach people how to use their phone as a tool. After educating people about what they can do, affordably, with their phone, Mobile Voices volunteers demonstrate how to send a photo to the site (via multimedia messaging, or MMS), call in to record an audio message, send a text message, and more.

They also show community members how to log in to the site via the web and use online tools there to edit, enhance or expand upon the content they posted by phone. IDEPSCA headquarters has computers that community members can come in and use, and many local libraries, schools and businesses also provide free or low-cost internet access.

The News Leadership 3.0 blog is made possible by a grant to USC Annenberg from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

The Knight Digital Media Center at USC is a partnership with the Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism. The Center is funded by a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

March 13, 2012

Mobile skills: New gateway drug to community engagement

By Amy Gahran

This year, smartphones are beginning to comprise the majority of U.S. mobile handsets in use. So mobile skills are becoming crucial for anyone who wants to stay informed and connected, or to access jobs or services. The catch is, it’s often not easy for consumers to learn how to use mobile devices well.

Partnerships between public libraries, community news/information projects, and other community stakeholders could play a key role in helping to bridge the mobile skills gap—while engaging communities in the process…

Digital media is the channel of choice for most new community news and information projects, mainly because it’s cheaper and easier to create a digital presence than a print or broadcast product. Most of these projects focus on websites intended to be viewed on a computer. But in the next couple of years, mobile devices (smartphones, tablets, and whatever comes next) are expected to become the most common way that people access the internet in the U.S.

Recently the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation held a conference exploring the future of libraries in the digital world. Watching Knight’s collection of video interviews with eight public library directors who attended this conference, I was struck by how often the themes of an education mission, digital literacy, and getting out into the community were mentioned—yet mobile technology was not mentioned by any of the library directors.

In fact, only James Crawford, the engineering director for the Google Books project, mentioned mobile technology in his interview from that conference: “Tablets and mobile devices allow libraries to extend their services out into the community,” he observed.

For more than a decade, public libraries and schools have been key community resources for free access to the internet via computers. And for many people this access has been a lifeline for access to jobs, education, information, connection with friends and family, and more.

Libraries are now extending this digital literacy mission to take computer skills training beyond the library and into the community—by holding training sessions at community centers, assisted living or senior centers, and elsewhere, often in cooperation with other community organizations and institutions. But this approach requires buying computers, arranging for mobile access to wifi, transporting all that gear around, and getting it set up and running.

That costs a lot of money, requires finagling with setting up wifi networks, and it overlooks a key opportunity: Teaching community members how to make the best use of the mobile devices many of them already have in their hands—and which many people consider indispensable to daily life.

Mobile skills don’t necessarily replace computer skills, at least not yet. But imparting good mobile skills has the engagement advantage of helping people realize greater immediate benefits from the devices and connectivity they already own—and that they carry everywhere they go. They won’t have to buy a computer, get broadband at home, or make a trip to a library or community center in order to put their newfound mobile skills to good use—or to improve their lives and communities in the process.

Consequently, mobile skills training might be a powerful “gateway drug” for community engagement. Especially if it’s focused on using web-enabled phones to meet pressing real needs, rather than more abstract learning.

For instance, many consumers don’t know how much about how to use the web or e-mail on their smartphone or tablet—or even on a feature phone, since many feature phones are capable of web and e-mail access. Yet the mobile web and e-mail can be key tools to access to news, information, jobs, social media, and more.

So a mobile training session geared toward, say, using your cell phone to find a job might include teaching:

  • How to use e-mail on your phone. (Employers and interactive systems must have a way to contact you.)
  • How to bookmark some key mobile-friendly job and networking sites on your phone. (Monster.com, LinkedIn, etc.)
  • Guidance on setting up your profile and resumé on these services. (This may need to be done on a computer, but generally you can at least handle the basics via a mobile web browser, and finish later on a computer.)
  • Tips on searching for and responding to job listings from your phone.


Note that all of these job-search skills also have other uses. If you know how to use e-mail on your phone, a world of digital interaction and connection becomes open to you—as well as the ability to subscribe to e-mail alerts and newsletters (perhaps from a community news or information providers, or your local library or school).

And if you know how to bookmark mobile-friendly job sites in your mobile browser, you can bookmark any mobile web site—such as a blog run by a local community organization, or a health information resource.

And if you learn how to fill out a mobile form to create a user account on a job site, you learn a basic skill for interacting with any digital service—such as social media, or subscribing to alerts from your local government.

And if you learn how to search a jobs site from your phone, you’ve learned the basic concept of doing any kind of web-based search on your phone.

And if you learn how the computer-based web and mobile web (or mobile apps) can complement each other, what their respective strengths and weaknesses are, you provide a motivation for people who might only have a cell phone to also get a tablet or computer, so they can have expanded access.

Positioning training to align with the community’s priorities is key to demonstrating its relevance and increasing its appeal. Consider which approach might be more effective to get the attention of community members: a generic class in computer skills (especially when many people might not have their own computer or broadband internet), vs. how to use your phone to find a job.

Once people get started with digital interaction and media, on any device, they’re likely to keep using it and build upon that base of knowledge—and to teach others what they’ve learned.

Community news and information outlets, libraries, schools and other key players with a mission to serve their communities should consider adding mobile skills training to their outreach efforts. One resource advantage of this approach is that you probably won’t have to buy as much equipment, or mess around with network access so much. However, you will have to invest in learning the basics of a few different kinds of mobile operating systems, and learn about the various kinds of e-mail service and basic data plans that wireless carriers offer.

Aside from mobile skills training, community members probably will also want help understanding what they can and can’t do with their phone without incurring extra fees. Asking people to bring a current cell phone bill into the library or other public venue, so you can see the kind of plan they’re on and look up details online, can help people gain confidence to do more with the phones they already have.

As low-cost Android tablets (such as the Kindle Fire) increase in popularity, it may make sense to also offer training in using the web browser and apps on these mobile devices, since they can do much more than just let people buy and read books. With a larger screen size than mobile phones, these devices can also be a great way to showcase community news and information resources intended for the computer-based web.

For any mobile training, a printed list of free public wifi hotspots in your community and their hours of availability can help people with wifi-enabled devices (but limited or no carrier data plans) find the access points most convenient to them. This can be especially valuable as many libraries are having to curtail operating hours and close branches due to funding challenges; and many nonprofits and community news outlets aren’t able to sustain multiple physical locations.

Finally, making sure your own digital presence is mobile friendly and accessible through a variety of mobile channels (mobile web, e-mail, and social media are the basics—although text messaging interaction and mobile apps might make sense in some cases) is another important way to build on the initial engagement of training. This is how you can help the people your train stay connected with your organization and mission.

What it means to be digitally literate is changing fast. Training is a powerful type of engagement, but it must keep pace with the times and make full use of available resources. Once you have the attention of your community, where they are, at any time, you have even more opportunity to help them improve their lives and enhance their individual and collective opportunities. Perhaps even more important, right now, than training them how to use a computer mouse.

The News Leadership 3.0 blog is made possible by a grant to USC Annenberg from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

March 20, 2012

How to build your mobile news audience? New Pew research offers insight

By Amy Gahran

Increasingly, people are turning to mobile devices to get news throughout the day. Thus, mobile was the big trend highlighted in this year’s State of the Media report from the Pew Project on Excellence in Journalism—which echoes other recent findings from comScore and elsewhere.

How can news and information publishers get ahead of the mobile wave?...

“The age of mobile, in which people are connected to the web wherever they are, arrived in earnest. More than four in ten American adults now own a smartphone. One in five owns a tablet. New cars are manufactured with internet built in. With more mobility comes deeper immersion into social networking. For news, the new era brings mixed blessings,” the PEJ report’s introduction began.

Some highlights from the mobile section of the PEJ report:

Digital news is becoming a multi-device experience. For now, desktop and laptop computers remain the most popular way that people in the U.S. access digital news venues. However, PEJ notes: “Nearly a quarter of U.S. adults, 23%, now get news on at least two devices: a desktop/laptop computer and smartphone, a computer and a tablet, a tablet and a smartphone, or on all three.”

Also: “For most with multiple devices, there is not a single place for news. People who acquire mobile devices appear to be using them to get news on all their devices. This also suggests they may be getting more news more often. About a third (34%) of desktop/laptop news consumers now also get news on a smartphone. About a quarter (27%) of smartphone news consumers also get news on a tablet. While this smartphone/tablet news consumer group is small—just 6% of the population overall—it is a large percentage of those who own smartphones and tablets. Fully 44% of people who own both kinds of devices use both for news.  What’s more, most of those individuals (78%) still get news on the desktop or laptop as well.”

“...Smartphone news users are now nearly split between their laptop and smartphone as their primary news platform: 46% still get most of their news on the desktop/laptop and 45% get most on their smartphone. Another 7% of these smartphone owners say they get most of their news on a tablet. Early tablet news users are moving in the same direction, but remain somewhat more reliant on the laptop or desktop computer. Of tablet owners, 47% still get most of their digital news via desktops or laptops, while a third (34%) have already transitioned to consuming most of their news on the tablet.

This echoes findings from comScore’s Digital Omnivores report last summer, which made this point: “Devices influence the way people consume content and it is important to remember that they do not exist in isolation of one another, but have a complementary relationship in consumers’ lives. ...Understanding how consumers are utilizing the full spectrum of digital devices available to them will become increasingly important to building effective digital strategies.”

Both PEJ’s and comScore’s findings indicate that in the long run, creating an integrated and relatively seamless user experience across devices will be important for retaining loyalty from mobile news users.

Site features like BostonGlobe.com’s “MySaved” (which saves stories bookmarked by an individual user in the cloud, for downloading to any device for later reading) may become crucial for a good user experience. However, such features probably will have to add more value compared to popular third-party tools like Instapaper, which support device- and reader-friendly aggregation across all websites (not just one news site at at time) and across multiple devices.

Deploying such services will be more streamlined for news and information sites that adopt responsive web design—a strategy that adapts webpage display for the type of device being used. Coupled with HTML5, which supports app-like features via the web browser, responsive design can vastly enhance the overall news experience for multiple-device users.

News brands are key for drawing mobile traffic. PEJ noted that news brands appear to drive traffic on every device, but they seems to matter most to tablet news audiences. “For all three digital platforms, the most common method for accessing digital news now is by going directly to a news website or app. And that has been helped by the advent of mobile. A third of those who get news via the laptop or desktop say they go directly to a news organization’s website ‘very often’ as do a third of smartphone news consumers and 38% of tablet news consumers.”

Keyword search is also important for mobile news discovery. According to PEJ about 70% of people who get news on a smartphone, tablet or both use keyword searches to find news at least occasionally. However PEJ’s earlier analysis of data from Nielsen indicate that much of news search traffic actually goes to the home pages of news site home pages, indicating that people may be searching quite often for news brands.

News aggregator apps are gaining mobile popularity. Just over a quarter of tablet and smartphone news consumers use aggregator apps such as Flipboard or Topix to access news stories. So it’s worth using these apps to make sure your news content displays well in this context.

Social media isn’t quite as important for mobile news discovery—yet. According to PEJ, “In total, just 9% [of digital news consumers] follow news recommendations very often from either Facebook or Twitter on any of the three devices.”

But: “This peer-to-peer sharing or recommending of news does appear to be an emerging trend, however, and may become a part—if not soon a primary part—of news consumption. If one adds to the tally those who say they follow these recommendations ‘sometimes’ to the 10% who say they do it ‘very often’ the number increases about three-fold. For both smartphones and tablets, more than a quarter (27%) follow recommendations from Facebook at least somewhat often. 9% for each device follow Twitter news recommendations at least somewhat often.  On the desktop/laptop the percentages come to 22% for Facebook and 5% for Twitter.”

That said, it’s generally a mistake to view social media primarily as a tool to broadcast links to your content in order to drive traffic to your site. Social media’s key value is for two-way engagement with your community—a way to discover what interests them, amplify their voices, and build credibility by being part of the public conversation. This in turn can influence the content you produce for any platform, to make it more compelling to your community across the board.

Mobile apps get used more frequently, but care is warranted. PEJ examined data from Localytics, a company that provides an analytics platform for advertising through mobile apps. According to PEJ, this data indicates: “People spend more time per session with news on mobile devices than they do on computers, and read more articles per session and more articles per month. Comparing this data to data collected on news website behavior suggests on average that users return to news apps more than five times as often over the course of the month and spend a minute longer per session.”

While PEJ did not speculate on what drives this trend, it’s possible that the ability of apps to provide “push notifications” may increase the frequency of app use. Increasing engagement through apps is crucial, since last year Localytics found that only one fourth of all apps get opened more than 10 times.

Platform-specific mobile apps generally require more resources to develop and maintain, and require more action from news consumers, than mobile websites. Also, apps don’t always automatically open in response to inbound links on a mobile device. So if you decide to deploy mobile news apps, make sure you also have a strong mobile web presence, and offer optional push notifications. Also offering an array of SMS text message alerts can help boost mobile traffic for both websites and apps.

...To put all of this research in context, it’s important to recognize that very soon your digital audience will soon be accessing your content mostly via mobile devices. Last September analysts at IDC predicted: “By 2015, more U.S. Internet users will access the internet through mobile devices than through PCs or other wireline devices.”

In other words, your news and information audience is going mobile fast. Building a strong brand and a good mobile experience for your users can help build your business. This may especially give brand new sites and advantage, since they aren’t hindered by legacy publishing systems that can’t easily accommodate responsive design and other new opportunities for mobile media.

The News Leadership 3.0 blog is made possible by a grant to USC Annenberg from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

The Knight Digital Media Center at USC is a partnership with the Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism. The Center is funded by a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

April 17, 2012

Local news enthusiasts: Pew research hints at opportunities for ethnic, community media

By Amy Gahran

The vast majority of U.S. adults are really into local news, Pew research shows. How might ethnic and community media outlets capitalize on this as more media goes digital and mobile?...

Over a year ago, the Pew Internet and American Life Project found that 72% of U.S. adults say they follow local news closely most of the time, whether or not some important local news is happening. Today, a new Pew report takes a closer look at this group of “local news enthusiasts.”

According to Pew, local news enthusiasts are more likely to be female, age 65 or older, and retired. “Politically, they tend to be conservative in their outlook (although they do not differ from others in party identification) and they also attend religious services more frequently than others. They do not differ from other adults in terms of household income, but are less likely to be college graduates.”

In terms of ethnicity, the vast majority (69%) of local news enthusiasts are white, Pew found. Black and Hispanic adults each comprise 13% of local news enthusiasts—roughly equivalent to the representation of these ethnic groups among the U.S. population at large.

Interestingly, adults with the lowest annual household income ($30,000 or less) were by far most likely to be keen on local news: 32% describe themselves as local news enthusiasts, compared to 22% in the highest income bracket (over $75,000). People with $$50,000-$74,999 annual household income had the lowest representation among local news enthusiasts (12%).

This finding indicates that ethnic and community news and media might be especially likely to gain traction in poorer communities and low-income demographics within communities—a point that might interest local advertisers and sponsors wishing to reach those communities.

Local news enthusiasts don’t all have gray hair. Fully one fourth are age 18-24. However, according to Pew this is the only age group where “other adults” outnumber local news enthusiasts—by almost two to one. This hints that right now is probably a crucial time to engage younger people in local news and information.

Digital media, including mobile and social media, might be particularly valuable in engaging younger people in local news and information. Pew noted: “91% of younger local news followers are internet users, compared with 71% of local news followers age 40 and older, and 82% of adults who do not follow local news closely.”

For contrast, another recent Pew study found that 20% of U.S. adults—mostly those over age 50—still don’t use the internet at all.

Also according to Pew, 73% of younger local news enthusiasts use some kind of social networking service (such as Facebook), compared with 35% of older local news followers and 53% of adults who do not follow local news closely. Twitter is not quite as popular—only 16% of younger local news followers use Twitter, but that’s far more than older local news enthusiasts or other adults. This indicates that using social media to complement your local news and information offerings on the web and in other media might be an especially effective tool for engaging younger community members.

Mobile devices represent a huge opportunity for ethnic and community media. Overall, 84% of local news enthusiasts have a cell phone, and 7% have a tablet computer—slightly less than penetration among all other adults. Also, Pew found the highest penetration of both types of mobile devices is among the youngest local news enthusiasts (under age 40).

This Pew report did not explore how many local news enthusiasts currently use smartphones. However, this year marks the tipping point when smartphones take over as the majority of U.S. handsets in use. Also, most simpler, cheaper “feature phones” are capable of browsing the web and accessing e-mail—and virtually all cell phones can send and receive text messages.

This means that a robust, inclusive mobile strategy (ideally one that includes text messaging alerts or interactivity) can help any local or niche news outlet connect with its community via the devices that most people already carry with them everywhere they go. Also, since social media is one of the most popular things that younger people do on their cell phones, social media can help jumpstart your mobile strategy.

Online media is definitely not the leading source of local news for local news enthusiasts—which may put online-only ethnic or community news and info outlets at a bit of a comparative disadvantage. According to Pew, enthusiasts’ most popular sources of local news are broadcast TV (80%), word of mouth (57%), radio (52%) and print (48%). In contrast, 41% of local news enthusiasts use search engines to find local news, 23% turn to the websites of local newspapers (TV stations sites, 20%), and 12% get their local news from social networking sites.

This points out an opportunity to leverage partnerships for cross-media promotion. For instance, online-only ethnic or community news outlets might provide some articles or other content to run in local newspapers, in exchange for the print outlet providing information about how to find the ethnic/community news site or do other cross-promotion. Similarly, providing simple, short, broadcast-quality audio or video news segments or community updates to local radio or TV stations could help broaden your audience. Many local stations are eager to run such content.

Finally, ethnic and community news sites with a strong mission to improve local communities may be encouraged by this Pew finding: “Slightly more local news enthusiasts than others think they can have a big impact on making their community a better place to live (33% vs. 27%).”

The News Leadership 3.0 blog is made possible by a grant to USC Annenberg from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

April 24, 2012

Why the mobile web is slow, and your mobile site must be FAST!

By Amy Gahran

Take out your cell phone, look at it and count to nine. That’s just slightly less time than it takes the average web page to load on a mobile web browser over a U.S. wireless carrier’s data network. It feels painfully slow. And unfortunately, the widespread rollout of carriers’ faster “4G” networks probably won’t help that situation much.

Which means that if your news or community site isn’t optimized to load very quickly on cell phone web browsers, and be easy and fast for mobile users to navigate, you’re facing a major and growing disadvantage to building your digital audience and business…

For lots of reasons, a mobile-optimized website should form the core of any news or community site’s mobile presence. Even NPR recommends that in order to grow their mobile audience, news sites should focus resources on the mobile web, rather than on building platform-specific mobile apps.

Last week Olga Kharif of Bloomberg reported that “twice as many mobile-phone users abandon a website for reasons such as sluggishness than their desktop counterparts.”

The Bloomberg article was focused mostly on e-commerce sites, which lose sales when mobile users get frustrated and leave. However, the same principle can apply to any type of website.

According to Kharif, the typical webpage currently takes 9.2 seconds to load on a mobile browser over a U.S. carrier’s data network. (Wifi load times are usually faster, but carrier networks are far more ubiquitous than wifi connections.) Also, “Almost half of mobile users are unlikely to return to a website at all if they had trouble accessing it from their phone.”

Kharif reported on new efforts by Google, Microsoft, Akamai Technologies, and other major internet companies to improve mobile web browsers, offer new mobile performance optimization tools for website owners, and to change how some basic internet technologies function.

Google’s goal is to make the overall mobile web experience twice as fast as it is today.

...OK, take out your cell phone again, look at it, and count to four-and-a-half. That’s better—but compared to the desktop experience it still feels a bit long to wait for a webpage to load.

Why is the mobile web so slow? Sometimes it’s a combination of where the mobile user is and how strong or congested the carriers’ network is in that location. But the servers where websites resides, browser technology, and other internet software also play a role in slowing down the mobile web experience, despite faster carrier networks. All of this is beyond the control of web publishers.

But Kharif notes: “Often it’s because the webpage wasn’t designed to load quickly on a wireless device.”

That’s where news and community site owners can take action to turn mobile media to their advantage.

Where’s your mobile site?

Many news and community sites lack a simple mobile-optimized layout. Instead, they display a miniature version of the full website in the mobile browser—which then requires more time and effort to pinch, zoom, and scroll merely to see what’s on the page.

For instance, the Bay Citizen (a nonprofit, well-staffed local news site in the San Francisco Bay Area that has attracted millions of dollars in funding) apparently lacks a mobile-optimized version. Try loading BayCitizen.org in your phone’s web browser and see what happens. (Note: On Apr. 25 The Bay Citizen tweeted: “We’re working on a mobile site as we speak!” Stay tuned.)

For contrast, try loading MinnPost.com (a smaller nonprofit news site) in your phone’s browser. That’s how a mobile-optimized site can look and perform. See the difference?

I’ve heard some smaller digital news publishers say they don’t offer a mobile-optimized layout for revenue reasons: the ads they run on their full site won’t display well or at all in a single-column layout on a small touchscreen.

Meanwhile, I’ve noticed that the mobile versions of mainstream daily news sites often offer few ads, and these are generally supplied through mobile ad networks—which typically provide relatively lower quality, less relevant ads and less revenue per ad. This, combined with a “shovelware” approach to the mobile web (which replicates the worst digital missteps of the news business from the 1990s), signals to users and advertisers alike that the mobile site is a less-valued, lower-priority product.

That’s just plain bad for business.

However, since mobile devices are fast becoming the most common way for people to access the internet in the U.S., failing to figure out how to place and sell relevant mobile-optimized ads because you believe this might undercut the ads on your desktop site seems shortsighted, to say the least.

So far, many news publishers have developed mobile apps which deliver ads as well as content. Since apps store many design elements on the phone, they have to download relatively less data each time they’re used compared to a mobile webpage. So news venue apps often perform faster and display ads and content more uniformly and reliably than the mobile web.

...Which is really nice—except that apps don’t always support inbound links that people encounter on search engines, around the web, in social media, or in e-mails or text messages. Plus you need to build and maintain separate versions of your app for each mobile platform (Apple’s iOS, Android, etc.). And finally users must download, install, and remember to launch your app. (According to research by Localytics, over 75% of mobile apps don’t get used more than 10 times.)

So until typical U.S. mobile web pageload times improve substantially, the best strategy to grow your digital audience and build your business is to offer a mobile-optimized version of your website. Today.

How to make your site mobile-friendly and fast

This can be accomplished by offering a separate mobile layout (“theme”) that gets served when a mobile visitor is detected by your server—you can use cookies to give individuals the option to display the full site on return visits if they prefer.

Or, if you’re building a new site or doing a total site redesign, you might adopt more advanced web design strategies—notably responsive web design, which reflows and changes dynamically to best suit the type of device a user happens to have, from a large computer monitor to a tiny mobile web browser.

Smaller and newer sites often have an advantage on this front—their websites typically rely on newer content management system technology that makes it easier to deploy mobile themes and responsive design.

Regardless of how you deploy your mobile web presence, if your site is ad supported it’s crucial to learn about, and to educate your advertisers about, mobile advertising. The Mobile Marketing Association has compiled detailed, useful mobile advertising guidelines.

Eventually mobile web speeds will catch up with the desktop web experience—but when? Lelah Manz, chief strategist for e-commerce at Akamai, told Bloomberg this could happen by 2014.

That might be true for the average e-commerce site focused on direct sales, since they have the strongest motivation to optimize. But for content-focused sites, including news and community sites, I’ll bet mobile users will still be waiting, and waiting, and waiting, for a while past that.

Which means that publishers who start taking their mobile web performance seriously right now have a window of opportunity to gain a competitive advantage not only with the fastest-growing part of the digital audience, but also with advertisers.

The News Leadership 3.0 blog is made possible by a grant to USC Annenberg from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

The Knight Digital Media Center at USC is a partnership with the Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism. The Center is funded by a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

May 10, 2012

Mobile for building the ethnic/community news business

By Amy Gahran

Next week the Knight Digital Media Center at USC is partnering with the City University of New York to offer a two-day workshop on mobile strategies and opportunities for ethnic and community media organizations in the New York City area.

One of our instructors, Arturo Duran of Digital First Media, will be explaining how mobile can enhance the business model and community engagement efforts of these news outlets. Here’s a preview of his advice…

Arturo Duran is the Chief Innovation Officer for Digital First Media—a spinoff from Journal Register Co. which last year took over operations management for all MediaNews Group and JRC newspapers. He also was a 2010-11 fellow in the Knight-McCormick Leadership Institute at KDMC. In the upcoming workshop, he’ll discuss the business considerations and opportunities for community and ethnic news outlets that embrace mobile.

Duran has considerable experience on this front. He was part of the team that created AOL Latino in U.S., and also served as CEO of Intermedia Digital (the largest Spanish-language newspaper company in the U.S.). He’s also led digital and mobile initiatives for small and large news outlets, and has even experimented with early augmented reality efforts.

Most ethnic and community news outlets are fairly small and local, but some (such as Little India magazine and China Daily) are quite large—spanning several states, or the nation, or the globe. Outlets from all points alone this spectrum will be represented among the workshop’s participants. What should they keep in mind about mobile?

“We need to stop thinking of what we—people in the media business—want, and listen to what our users are doing,” said Duran. He noted that in the U.S., African Americans, Hispanics, and other ethnic groups tend to be especially advanced in their use of mobile devices.

For instance, recent Nielsen Co. research found that U.S. Hispanics are 28% more likely to own a smartphone than non-Hispanic whites, and they also consume more mobile data than all ethnic groups. U.S. Hispanics also are three times more likely than non-Hispanic whites to have internet access via a mobile device, but not have internet at home. And their average mobile bill is 8% higher than the overall U.S. average.

Similarly, as of last summer Nielsen found that 33% of all African Americans own a smartphone, significantly higher than the national average. Also, 44% of all new mobile phone purchased by African Americans were smartphones—and among younger people in this group, that was over 50%.

And least year research from Rebtel (an internet telephony provider) showed that tablet computers are especially popular in several immigrant communities in the U.S.

“Ethic communities are more advanced not just in terms of how they use text messaging and smartphone apps, but also the mobile web,” said Duran. “For many ethnic groups, their mobile devices are the primary way they access the web. Since they’re using that platform, we should be giving them news and information that suits the platform they use. That makes what we offer more valuable, because it’s easier for them to find and use.”

What emerging business opportunities can mobile yield for ethnic and community news sites?

“Mobile delivers better data about your users, which helps you become even more relevant to them,” said Duran. “First of all, analytics for your mobile traffic can deliver more accurate info on where your users are. You also learn more about who they are. Unlike computers, a mobile device tends to be used by only one person. The more relevant you can be, the more engaging you can be—and so can your advertisers. Advertisers pay more to reach more engaged audiences.”

Mobile-optimized advertising is the natural place to start when looking to earn revenue from mobile offerings, said Duran. This includes ads that run on a mobile-optimized website or app, which can be served directly by the news venue or from a digital ad network. In fact, some ad networks offer tools to make it easy for news venues to create ad-supported apps.

“Using an ad network will help you get some initial information about your mobile audience,” Duran said. “They’ll give your statistics on your clickthroughs, engagement, etc. So you know what your mobile audience is doing. They can’t give you as much data as you’ll probably get from measuring your regular website traffic, but that’s still a lot of very useful information.”

And then: “Once you gain more experience with mobile and get more data about your mobile users, you can actually start segmenting your mobile audience and creating more tailored offerings that can be sold directly,” said Duran. “So if you’re already serving a niche market like a specific ethnic community, you might have even more of an edge in the mobile market.”

Duran recommends offering options in all mobile channels—from text alerts and mobile-optimized e-mail to the mobile web and apps. But strategy and moderation are crucial.

“You don’t want to overuse these tools. Especially with texts and e-mail,” he said. “You want to drive people from text or e-mail alerts to your mobile site. So don’t sent them lots of alerts; send them a few and show them where to click to learn more on their phone.”

The News Leadership 3.0 blog is made possible by a grant to USC Annenberg from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

May 22, 2012

10-step mobile strategy for community publishers

By Amy Gahran

Last weekend [email protected] held an invitation-only workshop on mobile strategy for community and ethnic media at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. The attendees included many top editorial, business, and digital managers for large and small publishers in the NYC metro area.

At this workshop I suggested 10 steps these publishers could take to start developing a viable, revenue-producing mobile strategy right now, even with modest resources. Here’s the plan…

1. Start using your phone for everything. Many people in the news business aren’t yet fully accomplished at using their own phones as everyday tools to access media, services, and interaction. Without this personal experience, it’s hard to recognize mobile opportunities and develop well-targeted mobile offerings.

So stretch beyond your comfort zone. For a few days or a week, try relying solely on your phone for media, news, information, entertainment, social media, services (like banking, shopping or getting directions) and interaction (texting, instant messaging, photo messages, e-mail, etc.). See how much you can do—and learn what you don’t already know.

2. Make your website mobile-friendly. For most cell phone users, a full website loaded in a small phone browser is a big hassle. If you’re standing on the street or sitting on a crowded bus, too much pinching, zooming, and scrolling are serious obstacles.

So create a fast-loading, simplified version of your site that automatically displays for cell phone visitors. Read Luke Wroblewski’s book Mobile First for advice on what works well with mobile web and app design and usability.

Your mobile-friendly site should be the core of your mobile strategy, since inbound links to any page of your site should load on any device, and most of what you do via mobile channels will ultimately drive traffic to your website.

Integrate mobile-friendly advertising into your mobile web layout. Ads displayed on your mobile site should link to mobile-optimized sites or landing pages. Educate your advertisers, offer analytics, and help the advertiser create ads and link destinations that will work well for your mobile audience.

Make sure your have a mobile-friendly website even if you offer one or more apps for smartphone platforms. The web is not a walled garden—it doesn’t require mobile users to download, install, and remember to launch anything. It’s inherently cross-platform. And many news venue-specific apps don’t automatically launch when a the user clicks a link to one of your stories received via, say, text or e-mail. You want your inbound links to always, always work.

Most likely for now you’ll have to implement “auto detection” code on your web servers to serve mobile users your mobile-friendly page layout. But if you’re starting from scratch with a new site, or when you do a complete overhaul of your current site,  incorporating responsive web design principles is a more elegant and robust solution that could simplify your future needs and increase your mobile options.

Some third-party services like MoFuse will repackage your content in a mobile-optimized template for a monthly fee, and run their own network ads in a revenue-sharing arrangement. That’s also a viable initial strategy, but probably not your most lucrative long-range plan.

3. Start experimenting with Tumblr. This free social blogging platform is highly popular—but more importantly it’s directly accessible via the web and extremely mobile-friendly. Tumblr can be your mobile sandbox and much more.

If at this point it’s beyond your means to implement a mobile theme with auto-detection for your main website, then you can use Tumblr to build a mobile-friendly web presence which complements your main site. For instance, you can post to your Tumblr blog “teasers” which promote and link to your most important or compelling content—then promote links to those Tumblr teasers via social media. The vast majority of people who use social media access it regularly on a mobile device, so you probably already have a large mobile audience in social media.

Tumblr is also a great venue to highlight individual photos, videos, or other multimedia that you’ve published. And it’s a great place to engage people with tidbits from your “cutting room floor,” or to share content created by your community.

And even if you already have mobile-friendly website, you can set up special Tumblr blogs for special projects or campaigns, including crowdsourcing.

4. Consider mobile users in your editorial style. Mobile users often are accessing content a few moments at a time, so they need context. Work to emphasize context and action in your content. One contextual editorial strategy is to begin each story with 2-3 short bullet-point highlights at top of each story, instead of a traditional “deck” and before a traditional story-style lede.

Include action-oriented links wherever possible, which allow mobile users to do useful things like register for an event. Also, where appropriate include full street addresses, e-mail addresses, and phone numbers in your content—these become actionable (clickable) links on mobile devices.

And if possible, adapt your content management system to allow you to geocode your content by specifying latitude/longitude coordinates. The major search engines weight this in providing search results to mobile users, so geocoding will increase your mobile search visibility.

5. Use social media for community engagement. Again, this is where you probably already have a considerable mobile audience. Make sure when you post links to Twitter, Facebook, etc., the destination of those links are mobile-friendly whenever possible. Not sure? Look up the link first on your phone to check.

Use social media on your phone when out and about as a radar screen for a large part of your community, and to share engaging observations and photos from around town. If you use popular mobile-only services like Instagram, or geo-social services like Foursquare, make sure you connect them to your other social media accounts so you can selectively cross-post easily as warranted.

Video links are hugely popular on social media. So if you post video, set up a branded YouTube channel and post your video there—then link to your YouTube videos from social media. YouTube is probably the most mobile-friendly video sharing service online, and it’s owned by Google. Posting your video on YouTube makes it both very findable and very mobile friendly.

6. Conduct periodic mobile market research. Mobile changes fast, and each community has unique preferences. Knowing what’s currently popular in your community regarding mobile devices, cost considerations, and other preferences will steer your decisions for further mobile offerings.

I’ve created a simple mobile market research survey. This can be conducted in person (you’ll want to see how people use their phones) every 6-12 months. Even a couple dozen responses from typical community members can provide actionable guidance.

Also, the mobile user experience is only as good as the quality of local wireless service. If a locally popular carrier’s service suddenly degrades (which can happen), your mobile offerings might perform poorly. So periodically check Rootmetrics.com’s maps for your community to understand current coverage conditions. Is there poor or spotty data coverage? Then take it easy on the video! Or if large numbers of your users sign up for 4G service and local coverage is good, consider richer mobile media offerings.

7. Offer text alerts and polls. SMS text messaging is a huge overlooked opportunity, but it’s valuable because it’s ubiquitous: it works on almost any mobile phone. Text alerts are obviously useful to share breaking news, event reminders, and even offer interactive services like polling.

Your text offerings can be either general or special-purpose. Just make sure users know exactly what to expect from each service. It’s best to only send 1-2 messages per week or less, and never spam people! Users must opt-in to each service individually, and they must be able to unsubscribe immediately simply by replying “stop.”

You must use a common shortcode to offer any text-message services. That’s not free, but using a shared shortcode from a vendor like TextMarks can cut your costs substantially compared to leasing a dedicated shortcode. That’s a good way to start.

Text alerts can include links, so make sure you’re using these links to drive traffic to specific mobile-friendly story pages (not to your home page) or to mobile-friendly advertiser landing pages.

8. Experiment with apps. After you have a mobile-friendly web presence, you’re considering mobile users in your editorial style and social media activities, and you’re offering some text messaging options, that’s the time to consider investing resources in apps intended to run on specific mobile platforms like Android or the iPhone.

The easiest way to get started with apps is to use a service that simply repackages your existing content within an app, “shovelware” style. Uppsite is one service that will create apps for you on all major platforms, and run network ads. That might be a good first step to experiment, get some data about your mobile users, and earn a little revenue.

However, in the big picture, content shovelware does not make a compelling app. Only 25% of apps get opened more than nine times. So if you intend to invest resources in developing an app, it’s better to look for opportunities to offer services, not just content, through apps.

Your mobile apps can be project-specific, such as presenting a data visualization, supporting a crowdsourcing effort, or providing special updates or context on a crucial community issue.

Usually when people say “mobile apps” they mean “native” apps which are software deployed for a specific mobile platform. But with the advent of better mobile browsers and more advanced web technology, it’s now possible to deliver a great deal of app-like functionality via the web. The advantage of “web apps” is that the user doesn’t need to download or run any software. One example of a mobile-friendly web app is ProPublica’s Dialysis Facility Tracker.

Developing platform-specific native apps cost more, so only build an app when it’s truly warranted: to use special device capabilities (like the camera or accelerometer) or if you have a very good revenue case. In particular, many publishers are lured by iPad apps because they look pretty and appear to return to publishers the control over users they thought they once had. But iPad apps have proven to be a dubious investment for news or content publishers.

9. Sell mobile landing pages or microsites, not just banner ads. Position access to your mobile audience as a premium service that can deliver more value to advertisers more value.

Use mobile landing page tools such as Landr.co or MoBistro to create compelling, actionable mobile microsites for your advertisers—for longer-term, bigger contracts than simply displaying a tiny banner that would likely perform poorly. You can get great analytics from these microsites, and adjust them on the fly to improve performance.

The key is that your ad sales staff must really know how to sell this service, build a basic microsite, and keep it updated with current advertiser info.

Once you have some advertiser microsites, you can promote links them not just via ad banners, but via your other mobile or social media offerings

10. Mobile doesn’t stand alone. Always promote and explain your mobile offerings in your print/broadcast venues, house ads and at events.

Prepare printed, online, and sometimes video tutorials explaining each offering: what is is, what value it offers to whom, how to use it. Create versions for community members and advertisers or partners.

And in general, train your community in how their phones can be useful tools. Recommend to your useful reporting tools for local issues like SeeClickFix, citizen journalism apps like MePorter, transit info services like NextBus and more.

The more you can encourage your community to get more info and value from their phones, the more they will value your mobile offerings.

More resources from the KDMC/CUNY community mobile media workshop.

 

The News Leadership 3.0 blog is made possible by a grant to USC Annenberg from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

The Knight Digital Media Center at USC is a partnership with the Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism. The Center is funded by a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

June 12, 2012

Text alerts for community media: Tips for getting started

Text message alerts are a potentially powerful, effective way to keep your community engaged with your news and information wherever they are—and regardless of what kind of phone they have or whether they have a data plan. But there are plenty of ways to do text alerts wrong. Here are some tips for getting started safely and smart…

By Amy Gahran

Aside from voice calls, text messaging (also called simple messaging service, or SMS) is the most popular thing people do with their cell phones. It’s also the most ubiquitous mobile communication channel—SMS works on virtually every cell phone, from the cheapest and most basic feature phone to the fanciest smartphone.

You can use text alerts to deliver short messages with breaking news, top headlines with links to stories, special topic updates, event or deadline reminders, and more. You can also use them to drive traffic to your website, or to your print edition, or even to carry paid advertisements.

1. Subscribe to other local text alerts first. Get a sense for what kinds of news, info, or alerts people in your community might be getting. For instance, local daily papers and TV or radio news shows often offer text alerts, as do many local governments, police departments, school districts, sports teams, and more.

Get to know the kind of content they provide, and get a feel for what seems useful. Also look for opportunities: what kind of local news or info isn’t yet offered by text alert?

Follow the links included in these text alerts, to ads as well as to stories or online information—do they go to mobile-friendly web pages? Are phone numbers or addresses ever included? (These are clickable on many phones.) See if they stick to what they promised in terms of content and frequency. Do they honor standard “stop” requests to unsubscribe?

2. Select a reputable SMS service with shared shortcodes. You will have to spend a little money to do text alerts right. Wireless carriers charge money to deliver text alerts to phones. Also, anti-spam laws govern require that a common shortcode (a special 5- or 6-digit phone number) be used to send any text messages which are not strictly person-to-person communication.

The easiest and most cost effective way to reliably and cost effectively transmit your alerts and adhere to legal requirements is to use a shared shortcode service. These companies lease shortcodes (which cost at least $500/month) and use software to divide their use—and cost—among several users. They also provide web-based software that allows you to manage subscribers, compose and schedule alerts. Textmarks is an inexpensive and easy-to-use SMS service, but there are many others. For a small list of subscribers, your text alert service can cost as little as $20/month.

Avoid services that offer to deliver your text alerts for free—these rely on technologies that are often blocked by wireless carriers. You want to be sure your subscribers receive your alerts—and that their requests to cancel are promptly and automatically handled. (Before you buy, test this important feature by subscribing to alerts from another publisher or marketer using the same SMS vendor, and then send the message “Stop.” You should receive no further messages from the service.)

3. Don’t overload your subscribers. People hate getting too many text messages, especially from news outlets or other organizations rather than individuals. So decide up front what your upper limit for text messages will be: Just 1-2 per week, or 5-10 over the course of a typical month, is reasonable.

4. Establish relevance first. Mobile users prize relevance above all else. So consider what kind of timely, brief alerts might be most valued by your community—and it probably isn’t the top headlines from your print paper or website.

For your first text alert offering, consider sending out occasional text alerts while important community news is breaking, before you write up and publish a news story—or even if you don’t end up publishing a related story.

For instance, you could start by posting text alerts of important breaking local news or events: major police actions or fires, major local government decisions, announcements of important community business openings or closings, severe weather alerts, timely reminders of festivals or sporting events, and more. Focus on whatever key time-sensitive news you already routinely follow (via police scanner, by attending meetings, etc.), so you’ll be able to pretty consistently catch the most vital community news right away.

Later, after you’ve gotten your feet wet with offering occasional text alerts of mobile news and events, you can branch out to offering other types of text alerts, such as your top story of the week or special weekly alerts on an important community issue. You’ll need to maintain each text alert service as a separate opt-in list—never subscribe people to new text alerts without their permission. But occasional alerts of breaking community news is most likely to get people interested enough to try your text alerts in the first place.

5. Provide only direct, mobile-friendly links in your text alerts. If you do link to your online news stories from text alerts, link directly to the mobile-friendly version of the story webpage—not to your homepage, or to a section page. (Making your site mobile friendly is the first item in my 10-step mobile strategy for community publishers.) And definitely don’t provide links that try to load the full version of your site which is meant to be viewed on a computer. That will slow down and frustrate many mobile users.

Similarly, if you include advertiser links in your text alerts, make sure they lead to mobile-friendly landing pages. (If your advertisers don’t have mobile-optimized landing pages, you can easily build and sell them as a service using tools like Landr.co)

I recommend using the free link shortening service Bit.ly to create all links that you’ll include in text alerts. This will allow you to track clickthroughs on these links, so you can assess which kinds of links are most popular with your text alert subscribers.

6. Don’t run off-target, irrelevant network ads. Many mobile ad networks will pay you to append short text ads with a link to your text alerts. That’s tempting, but those ads often say cheesy, generic things like “Got psoriasis?” This is irrelevant to community and most of your text alert subscribers, and hence undermines the key value of text alerts: relevance. Plus, they just look clueless.

Community publishers should probably avoid most ad networks for text alerts—they’re just too general, intended for a mass audience.

But you can—and should—eventually integrate local ads into your text alerts. Once you have a mobile-friendly website, you can start selling mobile-friendly ads from local advertisers (or larger institutions or brands that want to reach your community) which appear on the website. Again, that’s covered in my 10-point mobile strategy.

Once you have, say, five or more advertisers on your mobile site, you can start including occasional links to those advertisers, in rotation, in some (but not all) of your text alerts.

7. Support and promote your text alerts in print and online. Write up short, basic information about the text alerts you provide and why they’re valuable to your community. Create a mobile-friendly webpage with this pitch, as well as clear instructions for subscribing and unsubscribing. Print up postcards and fliers with this information, to distribute in community locations.

Also include this information in an article or recurring house ad in your print edition (if you have one), and link to it prominently from the main navigation on your website. And if you use social media or publish an e-mail newsletter, occasionally promote and link to your text alerts from there. (Social media and e-mail are hugely popular with mobile users.)

8. Keep the big picture in mind. Think of your print and web presence, social media efforts, and text alerts as an ecosystem. Your text alerts can drive traffic to your website or print edition (or advertisers), and also help your community recognize a whole new level of value from your news venue. Your print and web editions and social media posts (as well as supporting materials like postcards) in turn can drive text alert subscriptions.

Text alerts meet a need for quick heads-up awareness, whenever and wherever needed in your community. Your main news platforms provide more in-depth coverage, and social media provides engagement and more frequent updates. Understanding this interplay can help you hone your community coverage strategy and also use mobile to support your business model.

The News Leadership 3.0 blog is made possible by a grant to USC Annenberg from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

The Knight Digital Media Center at USC is a partnership with the Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism. The Center is funded by a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

June 12, 2012

Text alerts for community media: Tips for getting started

Text message alerts are a potentially powerful, effective way to keep your community engaged with your news and information wherever they are—and regardless of what kind of phone they have or whether they have a data plan. But there are plenty of ways to do text alerts wrong. Here are some tips for getting started safely and smart…

By Amy Gahran

Aside from voice calls, text messaging (also called simple messaging service, or SMS) is the most popular thing people do with their cell phones. It’s also the most ubiquitous mobile communication channel—SMS works on virtually every cell phone, from the cheapest and most basic feature phone to the fanciest smartphone.

You can use text alerts to deliver short messages with breaking news, top headlines with links to stories, special topic updates, event or deadline reminders, and more. You can also use them to drive traffic to your website, or to your print edition, or even to carry paid advertisements.

1. Subscribe to other local text alerts first. Get a sense for what kinds of news, info, or alerts people in your community might be getting. For instance, local daily papers and TV or radio news shows often offer text alerts, as do many local governments, police departments, school districts, sports teams, and more.

Get to know the kind of content they provide, and get a feel for what seems useful. Also look for opportunities: what kind of local news or info isn’t yet offered by text alert?

Follow the links included in these text alerts, to ads as well as to stories or online information—do they go to mobile-friendly web pages? Are phone numbers or addresses ever included? (These are clickable on many phones.) See if they stick to what they promised in terms of content and frequency. Do they honor standard “stop” requests to unsubscribe?

2. Select a reputable SMS service with shared shortcodes. You will have to spend a little money to do text alerts right. Wireless carriers charge money to deliver text alerts to phones. Also, anti-spam laws govern require that a common shortcode (a special 5- or 6-digit phone number) be used to send any text messages which are not strictly person-to-person communication.

The easiest and most cost effective way to reliably and cost effectively transmit your alerts and adhere to legal requirements is to use a shared shortcode service. These companies lease shortcodes (which cost at least $500/month) and use software to divide their use—and cost—among several users. They also provide web-based software that allows you to manage subscribers, compose and schedule alerts. Textmarks is an inexpensive and easy-to-use SMS service, but there are many others. For a small list of subscribers, your text alert service can cost as little as $20/month.

Avoid services that offer to deliver your text alerts for free—these rely on technologies that are often blocked by wireless carriers. You want to be sure your subscribers receive your alerts—and that their requests to cancel are promptly and automatically handled. (Before you buy, test this important feature by subscribing to alerts from another publisher or marketer using the same SMS vendor, and then send the message “Stop.” You should receive no further messages from the service.)

3. Don’t overload your subscribers. People hate getting too many text messages, especially from news outlets or other organizations rather than individuals. So decide up front what your upper limit for text messages will be: Just 1-2 per week, or 5-10 over the course of a typical month, is reasonable.

4. Establish relevance first. Mobile users prize relevance above all else. So consider what kind of timely, brief alerts might be most valued by your community—and it probably isn’t the top headlines from your print paper or website.

For your first text alert offering, consider sending out occasional text alerts while important community news is breaking, before you write up and publish a news story—or even if you don’t end up publishing a related story.

For instance, you could start by posting text alerts of important breaking local news or events: major police actions or fires, major local government decisions, announcements of important community business openings or closings, severe weather alerts, timely reminders of festivals or sporting events, and more. Focus on whatever key time-sensitive news you already routinely follow (via police scanner, by attending meetings, etc.), so you’ll be able to pretty consistently catch the most vital community news right away.

Later, after you’ve gotten your feet wet with offering occasional text alerts of mobile news and events, you can branch out to offering other types of text alerts, such as your top story of the week or special weekly alerts on an important community issue. You’ll need to maintain each text alert service as a separate opt-in list—never subscribe people to new text alerts without their permission. But occasional alerts of breaking community news is most likely to get people interested enough to try your text alerts in the first place.

5. Provide only direct, mobile-friendly links in your text alerts. If you do link to your online news stories from text alerts, link directly to the mobile-friendly version of the story webpage—not to your homepage, or to a section page. (Making your site mobile friendly is the first item in my 10-step mobile strategy for community publishers.) And definitely don’t provide links that try to load the full version of your site which is meant to be viewed on a computer. That will slow down and frustrate many mobile users.

Similarly, if you include advertiser links in your text alerts, make sure they lead to mobile-friendly landing pages. (If your advertisers don’t have mobile-optimized landing pages, you can easily build and sell them as a service using tools like Landr.co)

I recommend using the free link shortening service Bit.ly to create all links that you’ll include in text alerts. This will allow you to track clickthroughs on these links, so you can assess which kinds of links are most popular with your text alert subscribers.

6. Don’t run off-target, irrelevant network ads. Many mobile ad networks will pay you to append short text ads with a link to your text alerts. That’s tempting, but those ads often say cheesy, generic things like “Got psoriasis?” This is irrelevant to community and most of your text alert subscribers, and hence undermines the key value of text alerts: relevance. Plus, they just look clueless.

Community publishers should probably avoid most ad networks for text alerts—they’re just too general, intended for a mass audience.

But you can—and should—eventually integrate local ads into your text alerts. Once you have a mobile-friendly website, you can start selling mobile-friendly ads from local advertisers (or larger institutions or brands that want to reach your community) which appear on the website. Again, that’s covered in my 10-point mobile strategy.

Once you have, say, five or more advertisers on your mobile site, you can start including occasional links to those advertisers, in rotation, in some (but not all) of your text alerts.

7. Support and promote your text alerts in print and online. Write up short, basic information about the text alerts you provide and why they’re valuable to your community. Create a mobile-friendly webpage with this pitch, as well as clear instructions for subscribing and unsubscribing. Print up postcards and fliers with this information, to distribute in community locations.

Also include this information in an article or recurring house ad in your print edition (if you have one), and link to it prominently from the main navigation on your website. And if you use social media or publish an e-mail newsletter, occasionally promote and link to your text alerts from there. (Social media and e-mail are hugely popular with mobile users.)

8. Keep the big picture in mind. Think of your print and web presence, social media efforts, and text alerts as an ecosystem. Your text alerts can drive traffic to your website or print edition (or advertisers), and also help your community recognize a whole new level of value from your news venue. Your print and web editions and social media posts (as well as supporting materials like postcards) in turn can drive text alert subscriptions.

Text alerts meet a need for quick heads-up awareness, whenever and wherever needed in your community. Your main news platforms provide more in-depth coverage, and social media provides engagement and more frequent updates. Understanding this interplay can help you hone your community coverage strategy and also use mobile to support your business model.

The News Leadership 3.0 blog is made possible by a grant to USC Annenberg from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

The Knight Digital Media Center at USC is a partnership with the Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism. The Center is funded by a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

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ABOUT THIS BLOG

Exploring innovation, transformation and leadership in a new ecosystem of news, by journalist and change advocate Michele McLellan.

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