News Leadership 3.0

August 18, 2011

How people use cell phones should shape mobile news strategies

If you want to serve a mobile audience, it helps to know how people use their cell phones. A new Pew Internet and American Life report examines mobile phone use, and offers some insights that may be directly and indirectly useful to news publishers…

According to Pew, 83% of U.S. adults own a cell phone of some kind. That’s something over 200 million people nationwide, extrapolating from the latest comScore mobile market statistics.

How can news publishers serve this large audience?...

By Amy Gahran

Be useful—and fast. For mobile users, “news you can use”—especially if published in fact sheets, dashboards, or other formats besides narrative stories—might help attract and retain mobile audiences.

Pew noted: “Cell phones are useful for quick information retrieval—so much so that their absence can cause problems. Half of all adult cell owners (51%) had used their phone at least once to get information they needed right away. One quarter (27%) said that they experienced a situation in the previous month in which they had trouble doing something because they did not have their phone at hand.”

So don’t underestimate the value of non-story-format info such as sports scores, local weather, event listings, resource guides, restaurant reviews and more. For mobile audiences, useful info presented well (and quickly) might be a significant draw.

Also, consider giving users of your mobile web site and apps ways to bookmark specific stories on your site, making them easier to find quickly later on mobile devices. Don’t make them waste time searching again for what they’ve already found. (Searching in mobile sites or apps is generally pretty cumbersome for mobile users.)

Be fun. According to Pew, 42% of all cell owners (including 70% of those 18-29 years old) turn to their phone for entertainment when bored. To capitalize on this, make it easy for mobile users to find your fun content.

This doesn’t mean news orgs should create more “light” or “weird” news, at the expense of serious news. It just means if you make obvious whatever is entertaining about your news, and make it easy to find this content, you’ll probably attract more mobile users.

Also, consider adding fun layers to your news content via contest such as “caption this photo,” news-related games, and more. And, of course, make sure your mobile sites and apps make it easy for mobile users to share your content via social media—something many people consider “fun.”

Offer text messaging services. Pew found that 73% of all cell phone owners send or receive text messages. So offering a variety of opt-in text alerts (both ongoing and special-purpose) can be a vital tool for keeping your news brand on the radar of mobile users.

Accept user-contributed images. Similarly, 73% of mobile users take photos with their cell phones, and 22% have posted photos or videos online from their phone. So consider ways that you might put user-contributed imagery to use. This could be done via MMS (multimedia messaging, available to all types of phones), a mobile-friendly web form, or a feature of your mobile app. This could be part of contests, games, or campaigns.

Serve both smartphones and feature phones

Earlier this year Pew estimated that 35% of U.S. mobile phones currently in use are smartphones. This means that simpler, less costly feature phones still comprise the vast majority of the U.S. mobile market.

Despite the smartphone hype, feature phones probably won’t vanish anytime soon since they’re cheaper to get, and they offer more affordable and flexible carrier plan options. So news organizations should consider both types of mobile users in their offerings.

Smartphone and feature phone users do tend to use their phones differently.

Smartphone apps currently are the primary focus for most news orgs’ mobile strategies. Pew did find that 69% of smartphone users have downloaded apps. But: This means that over 30% of smartphone owners have not downloaded apps. That group probably includes a lot of BlackBerry users (overall a less robust platform for both apps and the mobile web).

Also, Pew found that 84% of smartphone owners (84%) access the Internet from their phones—significantly more than the 69% who download apps.

In contrast, 15% of feature phone users currently get online from their phones. However, going by comScore’s numbers that’s probably somewhere around 20 million feature phone users—a substantial existing audience for the mobile web.

These statistics underscore the core value of the mobile web: this single offering can serve huge numbers of mobile users well, largely irrespective of platform or device type.

So before investing too heavily in app development for specific smartphone or tablet platforms, news organizations probably should first make sure they have a good mobile web site that works for both full and limited mobile browsers. Doing so might grow your share of the feature phone audience well beyond 15%, and attract larger numbers of smartphone users as well (especially via inbound links to your site).

Intriguingly, 4% of feature phone users have downloaded apps. (Yes, most feature phones can and do run simple apps, and popular apps stores like GetJar and Snaptu serve this market.)

Many online publishers interpret small-sounding statistics like this to dismiss the need to offer content in formats friendly to feature phones. However, this seemingly tiny market segment comprises about 6 million people—and it has substantial room to grow. It’s possible that as feature phones continue to get “smarter” this segment of the mobile media landscape will grow to the point that it becomes a more attractive channel for news publishers. So it’s worth keeping an eye on.

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

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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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