News Leadership 3.0

January 06, 2011

Mobile strategy planning: Don’t skip the survey!

Mobile news strategies are definitely not one-size-fits-all. In order to effectively reach and grow your mobile news audience (something every news organization should be doing right now), you need to know more about how the people you want to reach are using mobile devices.

That’s what I did last summer, for Oakland Local…

By Amy Gahran

Oakland Local is a community “news & views” site that I co-founded in 2009 with Susan Mernit and Kwan Booth. It’s an online-only venue serving one of the most culturally diverse and economically challenged US cities.

From the outset I pushed to make Oakland Local accessible and engaging to people who access us via cell phone. By 2013, mobile devices (phones and tablets) are expected to be the most common way that people access the internet. We need to be where our community is going, not just where they’ve been. And increasingly, people in Oakland are on their phones. For everything.

We were awarded a $20,000 Media Greenhouse grant from the Renaissance Journalism Center to support market research and pilot project development for making Oakland Local not just mobile friendly, but mobile first.

The first thing we did with that money was organize a pretty detailed market research survey. In July and August, a half-dozen Oakland Local survey takers went out to various Oakland neighborhoods and interviewed a total of 84 cell phone users. This may not sound like a large group, but we collected considerable data from a highly diverse sample of participants. What we learned played a big role in shaping our mobile strategy.

Here are some highlights from our mobile survey results, and how we’re putting that information to use.

Mobile web use is surprisingly popular, even on cheaper phones.

About 70% of the Oaklanders we surveyed rely primarily on inexpensive “feature phones,” especially from discount, no-contract wireless providers like MetroPCS. Feature phones generally cannot run mobile software apps, and their simplified web browsers and small screens make many web sites difficult to display and navigate.

Only 30% of Oakland mobile users currently rely on smartphones (such as iPhone, Android, and Blackberry models), which have fully-featured web browsers, large screens, and can run apps. These typically cost at least $90 per month, with a two-year carrier contract.

Affordability matters very much in Oakland. New US Census data reveals that Oakland’s media household income is lower than the national average—and that 17.5% of all Oaklanders live in poverty. Unemployment remains high in Oakland.

Just over half of Oakland mobile users surveyed have no broadband access (3G or WiFi) from their phone. Instead, they surf the web and perform other popular internet activities via their carrier’s slower “1X” data networks. Typically, this yields a slower and more frustrating (but more affordable) mobile online experience.

But despite all these challenges, a whopping 80% of Oakland mobile users report that they browse the web from their phones daily or most days. And by the numbers, most of that frequent mobile web access is happening on feature phones.

So for Oakland Local, it became clear that if we hoped to use mobile to grow our audience and deepen our community engagement right now, we must focus on “lean” mobile offerings that work well on limited feature phones. These are the phones which most Oaklanders have, and which they value so much that their phones are rarely out of reach.

While feature phones are steadily gaining “smart” capabilities, don’t count on everyone getting smartphones or mobile broadband anytime soon. At least, not in a city like Oakland. (Your mileage may vary—which is why it’s important to conduct your own mobile market research survey for your region.)

The catch is the monthly bills. Our survey showed that 37% of Oakland mobile users pay less than $50 per month for mobile phone service, and a further 39% pay between $51-$80 per month. Over half (51%) of all survey respondents are on month-to-month deals with wireless carriers, mostly to control costs and gain flexibility to switch devices and carriers.

A typical smartphone (not on a family plan) costs at least $90 per month, with a two-year contract commitment and early termination fees that can reach $500 or more. That’s simply beyond the financial means of many household budgets in Oakland.

Plus, smartphone handsets generally cost $100 or more up front. In contrast, most carriers offer a variety of fairly sophisticated feature phones for under $50, or even for free (with a six-month or one-year contract).

Even though device capabilities are improving, it’s highly unlikely that most US wireless carriers anywhere will start offering high-quality, high-capacity mobile broadband for $80/month with no contract anytime soon. So we expect lower-end phones to remain the majority in Oakland for at least the next few years.

Since Oakland Local is a web-based venue, it made sense to focus our initial mobile development effort on creating a mobile-friendly version of our site that displays well on even very simple, limited mobile browsers. We officially unveiled our mobile site this week—although we’ve been testing and tweaking it for a couple of months.

All mobile visitors get routed to our lean mobile site—but smartphone and tablet users who prefer to see the full site can click a button on any page to switch. This sets a cookie in the phone to save that preference, and they’ll continue to see the full site until they switch back or clear their cookies.

Mobile supports growth through access, sharing

Almost no one in Oakland goes online solely from their phone. Nearly all mobile users we surveyed reported also having easy, reliable access to the web via computer (at home, work, school, or at the library). Therefore, we knew we didn’t have to worry about offering Oakland Local’s complete value or experience in a lean mobile format.

Rather, we intend for mobile to complement and support what we offer on our full site, as well as our extensive social media efforts.

Specifically, it’s now possible for people to deepen their connection with Oakland Local by reliably being able to access it wherever they are, even from a simple phone. They’ll get our full content—but in a format that puts the highlights first (providing value before they invest energy and time in scrolling).

This is great for people who already know Oakland Local, or who discover us through a mobile web search or from a link from another web site. However, having a lean mobile site is also a big key to growing our audience through sharing.

Besides surfing the web, the mobile users we surveyed also use their phones heavily for these popular activities either daily or on most days—often to share links or interesting information with their friends or communities:

  • Text messaging: 96%
  • E-mail: 61%
  • Instant messaging: 60%

Plus, while we did not specifically gather data about mobile social media use, much research from Pew and elsewhere consistently shows that social media is one of the most popular mobile activities throughout the US.

By creating a lean mobile version of our site that is the default access for mobile visitors, we’re confident that if someone gets a text message or a tweet from a friend containing a link to our site, that link will almost certainly work on even a simple mobile browser or a slow data connection.

Sharing is a core part of our strategy to grow our audience. We’ve already been doing this via social media, but until recently our site simply would not display well (or sometimes not at all) on many mobile phones popular in Oakland. Such experiences frustrate would-be new readers and deter engagement.

We’ll see over the next few months whether this strategy helps to grow our audience. But at least we already know that we’re not presenting obstacles to the majority of mobile users.

What your news organization can do.

Oakland is not like every other city, and Oakland Local is definitely not like most news organizations. We have released more results from our mobile survey, but it would be a mistake to assume our data applies well to other cities or news organizations.

When planning your mobile strategy, consider your core goals first:  What do you need to achieve overall as a business, and as a news organization?

If increasing your audience size and deepening audience engagement would support your revenue model and other goals, then focus first on serving the largest number of mobile users first.

For many general-interest news organizations this could mean adopting a default lean mobile site, like we did. But that’s not the only approach. It could also mean offering a series of opt-in text alerts or e-mail newsletters. Or, if a large percentage of the kind of people you’d like to gain as readers use social media, it could mean beefing up (and keeping up) a strong, conversational social media presence.

If your revenue model or other core goals hinge mainly on attracting niche audiences (such as people with higher incomes, sports junkies, or parents) then it makes sense to focus on surveying only those people and meeting their core needs.

But even your target niches mainly use smartphones, don’t simply assume you should build an app to deliver your content. Ask these people careful questions about how they use their phones overall, and find ways to work with the mobile features and services they already love. Your survey will probably give you ideas about new ways to reach your goals that you’d never have considered if your news organization had to imagine everything all on its own.

Even though it’s labor intensive, I highly recommend that you conduct your mobile survey in person, out in the field. Mobile phones are perhaps the most context-dependent of all media tools.

Go where the community you want to reach is. Survey at least some people who have never heard of your news org, or who never seek your content, in addition to the people who love you (or at least know you). Ask to see their phones. Ask them to show you how they use them—what they like, and what frustrates them. Ask them about anything that affects how they use their phones: cost, setting, usability, network access, etc. Ask about their mobile sharing habits.

We offered $3 gift cards for a popular coffee shop chain. That usually was enough encouragement for strangers to spend 15-20 minutes telling us about their phones, in context. And for that, we gained a wealth of insight.


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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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