News Leadership 3.0

July 06, 2010

Wooing more mobile users with interactive databases

Over the Independence Day weekend, (a hub for federal government info and resources) relaunched a more user-friendly version of its site. This includes a gallery of free mobile apps based on US government data, news, information, and services.

The interesting thing is, most of these “apps” aren’t really apps at all. They’re not separate programs that run on a smartphone operating system. Rather, they’re special-purpose web sites designed to work well within the limited microbrowsers that come with the vast majority of web-enabled cell phones in user today (feature phones, not smart phones). Examples include Alternative Fuel Locator, Find Your Embassy, and FEMA Mobile. (My list of WAP/platform options for all apps so far.)

From the perspective of engaging the largest possible mobile audience, this is a smart strategy—one that news organizations might emulate, especially for data-based interactive features…

Mobile has become a big deal for the news business. Gartner recently predicted that by 2013, mobile phones will overtake computers as the most common web access device worldwide. (This is already true in many parts of the developing world, but the US is likely to catch up soon.)

But so far, most US news organizations appear to be paying the least attention to the biggest part of the mobile news picture. At a time when every news org should be working hard to expand and retain their audience, most are devoting considerable resources on developing and promoting apps for smartphones (especially the iPhone). The problem is, the vast majority of handsets in use in the US are not smartphones, but less expensive, simpler “feature phones” that generally can’t run real apps.

Most major US news sites already offer mobile-friendly sites based on WAP (wireless application protocol) standards. Stripped-down, low-bandwidth WAP sites from news orgs such as CNN, the Denver Post, or ABC News, display fairly well on basic mobile browsers.

Such first-generation WAP news sites are a good first step—the lowest common denominator of mobile web access is a crucial base to cover. However, most WAP news sites typically fail to engage and reward mobile visitors. (This may, in part, explain why relatively few feature phone users frequent news sites so far.)

Here’s the problem: Most US news WAP sites are little more than shovelware: reformatted content that mostly mirrors the structure and purpose of the standard web site. This relatively thoughtless approach requires too much navigation, clicking, and inference to connect mobile users with value.

The main challenge with lean mobile news is not primarily A matter of design/usability, but of editorial approach. The traditional story approach to packaging news (headlines linking to full-text narrative stories) generally serves mobile users poorly.

That’s why the mobile “apps” caught my attention.

Most of the offerings are designed to help mobile users help themselves (make better choices, take action, find/use services, understand issues). Most of these tools don’t simply present information about government agencies—they make government info current, relevant, explorable and useful.

Increasingly, news organizations that publish interactive databases are finding that these are some of the most popular parts of their site. A good example of this is the Texas Tribune, which reports getting nearly three times as much traffic to its interactive databases compared to its news stories.

There’s some debate over whether interactive databases are “journalism”, but there’s no question that news audiences want, like, and use data-based services. Who cares whether interactive databases are “journalism” as long as they can be used to support the business model for digital news?

If your business model depends on either attracting large numbers of visitors, or keeping people engaged with your content and brand (repeat visits or longer visits), then you might want to consider not just offering interactive online databases, but making them useful to as many mobile users as possible via WAP sites or.

Once you’ve hooked these lean mobile users with fast, relevant information in response to their specific queries or curiosity, then you can deliver to them (also via WAP) links to your most recent relevant stories.

The overall strategy to experiment with here is: Try using mobile-friendly databases to engage visitors and lure them into your stories. Don’t expect your headlines to be sufficient to engage mobile visitors—at least, not the masses who are not using (and who may never use) smartphones.

If you try this experiment, here are some tips:

  • Promote your mobile web interactive features prominently via your print or broadcast channels.
  • Consider also promoting them via radio advertising, which seems to be quite effective for driving mobile traffic.
  • Give your interactive features short, simple URLs that are easy to remember, spell, and type on a cell phone. You don’t necessarily have to use your news org’s domain name; you can register a project-specific domain (like, say, Just make your branding obvious on the WAP pages served.
  • Use auto-detection so mobile users don’t have to remember to type in “m.” or “/mobile” to access the WAP version of your offering.
  • Make it easy for WAP users to share the results of their queries to your database via SMS text messaging, e-mail, and social media.
  • From your WAP database site, offer easy, obvious access to your news site (both full and WAP versions), as well as to the full web version of your database. And despite offering these options, expect some smartphone users to complain noisily that you subjected them to a WAP site. Don’t worry about these inevitable squawks; focus on your overall mobile traffic.
  • Use mobile analytics to monitor mobile web traffic and see how mobile visitors use and share your WAP pages.

There are many other ways to improve your lean mobile offerings, and I’ll be discussing them in future posts. But for now, assume that web shovelware isn’t good enough for this market—and that approach might even undermine your attempts to woo mobile traffic.

Mobile users tend to be action oriented, so giving them something to do (rather than merely read) on your mobile site could get them coming back for more. Right now, simply making any attempt to improve the lean mobile visitor experience is an easy way to stand out to this potentially huge and important audience.


Over the Independence Day weekend, (a hub for federal government info and resources) relaunched a more user-friendly version of its site. This includes a gallery of free mobile apps based on US government data, news, information, and services. The interesting thing is, most of these “apps” aren’t really apps at all.

I’m interested in studying communications and online. And indicate that the communication is very fast from a few people. When brought Technologies brand new. To use correctly.

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

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