Knowledge Bridge

Global Intelligence for the Digital Transition

Mobile publishing: A reality check

Most digital industry veterans would agree that something’s missing if a New Year isn’t accompanied by the customary prediction that 20XX is going to be ‘the year of mobile’.  Joking aside, it’s tempting to draw a parallel with the Aesopian myth of the boy who cried ‘wolf!’  Given media consumption trends, it’s likely that if and when this ‘mobile year’ finally arrives, the news industry won’t believe it after so many failed predictions and so won’t be ready to respond and adapt in a timely and effective manner.

This would be quite a calamity, as what has truly hampered news publishers’ ability to innovate and reposition is not so much the need to restructure their business model for the digital era but, rather, the fact that this era is forcing on key industry players ever shorter cycles of disruption.

Take the printed press. It had decades to accustom itself to a multi-channel TV media environment and then a dozen years or so to adjust to the desktop internet, whereas today it barely has a year or two to be fully ready for the ‘mobile internet’ – let alone futuristic- sounding concepts like the gradually emerging ‘Internet of Things’.

In the past, content providers from less mature markets (from, say, the European periphery or Latin America) could take heart from the fact that they could learn from the successes and errors of pioneers, as publishers in the USA or the larger European markets would inevitably be – it is indeed a rare privilege to have constantly, through peer experience, a crystal ball at one’s disposal. But probably not this time: as ‘second tier’ digital economies go through a leapfrogging process, with swathes of new users coming online directly via mobile (having never gone through the, possibly intermediary, stage of the desktop or laptop), most news providers have to start with a slate that is unnervingly clean.

Still, sceptics of the mobile revolution abound – not so much with regards to the medium’s usage proliferation but its potential for advertising sales.  Indeed, with the percentage of mobile visitors to news sites rising inexorably – a current estimate would put it at an average of one in three – it is hard to dispute the prognosis that, in the near future, close to half (or more) of website visitors will be accessing content and services through a smartphone. Which means that publishers will need to find a coherent and sustainable strategy for monetizing the mobile half of their audience – and this is where things get complicated.

Any monetization strategy will rest on one fundamental parameter: the size and form of mobile advertising.  Unfortunately for publishers, this remains a major question mark.  Most pundits predict that the ‘time spentTime SpentThe amount of elapsed time from the initiation of a visit to the last audience…

In theory, this would be welcome news for news providers worldwide as it highlights the key growth area while also underlining the potential weight of the different components; again, eMarketer considers video to be the strongest category, with rich mediaRich mediaAdvertisements with which users can interact (as opposed to solely animation)…

Does that mean that charging users for content and services will be a sustainable strategy for most news providers? Probably not. Unless a publisher can provide truly unique content (if, for instance, it is the only news provider in the local community or offers some ultra-niche thematic content), it’s clear that the ‘drift to free’ that dominated the desktop web for years is replicated in the mobile environment. This is not to say that all mobile content and services will be free – rather, paid content is going to be more the exception than the rule and it is going to represent only a fraction of overall revenues for publishers. Indeed, as is the case already today with leading news brands, paid content on mobile is going to be part of a broader ‘one subscription’ (probably freemium) scheme that encompasses print, desktop, mobile and tablet.

So, if mobile advertising is mainly going to the global giants and, in addition, user revenues are not enough to sustain a quality news provider, what strategy can improve in the near term a news publisher’s position, especially those not at the very forefront of the mobile transformation? Possibly one that rests on three fundamental pillars, namely:

Will such an approach resolve all questions related to mobile strategy? Does it address all opportunities and threats portable devices pose to digital news publishing? Certainly not. However, it does provide content providers with a solid and scalable first step that does not require a massive investment in capital, human resources or technology in both a challenging macroeconomic environment and an uncertain emerging media ecosystem.

Finally, it brings further to the fore publishers’ key asset: news. Either as a main thrust of mobile content or as a critical ‘social promotion’ tool or as a way to present (clearly labelled) advertising, it is refreshing and encouraging to see that the newest of digital media may rely anew on our industry’s timeless core mission.

Article by Constantine Kamaras

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