Time to Revisit Our Mobile Strategy

Flurry ResearchApps, apps, apps; it’s all anybody hears today regarding the future of the mobile web, but this is an alluring and deceptive reality, one that can be dangerous for media companies. When the experts say that the Web is turning into a series of apps (especially mobile), they are not talking about local media apps. On the mobile web, media content functions in a way that requires we step back today and rethink our strategic approach to mobile.

To begin, we’ve all seen the headlines:

These articles, and many more, stem from Flurry research and Nielsen data last year that revealed nearly everybody is using apps instead of the mobile web. The research is great, but the conclusion completely misses what’s really taking place for media companies, whose bread and butter is the creation of content. That content is distributed through these apps via the open mobile web, and that is where our attention needs to be. We don’t blame anyone for jumping on the app bandwagon, for to us as mass media players, the walled-garden approach suits our needs. The problem is that it doesn’t suit the needs of users, and we have proof of that, if you know where to look.

Top 25 popular appsWhen somebody shares, for example, a local TV station link with their friends on Facebook, that link goes to the station’s website, not its own app. Again, the very nature of mobile, which is personal connectivity, transports media content in unbundled form from user to user via the media company’s mobile website, not its app. So while we’re busy building and tweaking our apps, people – who are using the apps THEY like, want and need (see graph) – are going around us to grab a lookie-loo at our content, and the problem is that content is generally not in a user-friendly format, nor does it contain any serious effort to monetize the extreme value of all that attention. Moreover, the people who use media company apps, and there are definitely some, are already fans of our products, and research, again, proves that. Research indicates that up to 90% of any television station’s web users are already highly motivated to watch that station. So what’s the point? Perhaps, you say, brand extension, but that’s a pricey way to meet only their needs.

This directly challenges the strategy of most media companies today, and we MUST pay attention to this reality. It’s not that technology isn’t working to “solve” the problem of disconnected apps. Look at the headlines again: Button Raises $12 Million From Redpoint To Deep Link All Your Apps. This, however, is not as easy as you think, as beautifully explained in an article in VentureBeat by Vijay Tella, an integration software visionary and expert. He writes “Why deep linking isn’t enough for mobile app integration and uses a recent example to explain the enormous obstacles of true app integration.

”(T)hese pre-built integrations have fallen short of solving the problem for business customers. For example, Intuit introduced an integration product to connect Salesforce and QuickBooks. Three years later, Intuit’s explanation for shutting it down crystallized the shortcoming of pre-built integrations:

“Our original intention for the Salesforce for QuickBooks and Salesforce for QuickBooks Integration business was to serve the needs of our Desktop (Pro/Premier) base with an out of the box solution…Instead, we have seen a high volume of use by customers who have needed a higher level of customization than our solution can provide – and our solution was unable to meet their needs.”

“This had nothing to do with Intuit’s ability to program, code or collaborate with Salesforce. Instead, the company could not support the massive number of variations different customers had for how they needed Salesforce and QuickBooks to work with each other. The challenge in connecting consumer mobile apps is not that different. The model Button is using, while an exciting step in the right direction, doesn’t fully address the issue at-hand: People use combinations of apps in unique, infinite ways. It is impossible to predict their usage in terms of features, sequencing, and preferences.”

Technology will continue to work on this problem, because, well, there seems to be a demand for it, but don’t let that demand fool you into thinking this is anywhere near around the corner. We’ve all simply got to stop looking at our needs and begin to respond to the needs of the people. That’s where we will find profit downstream. Mr. Tella says it’s impossible to predict their usage, and that people use apps and combinations of apps in unique, infinite ways. This is exactly why the artificial intelligence community has turned to the open web, because those infinite ways are at least possible here. As David Weinberger has so brilliantly observed, it’s about “pulling” things from infinite places, rather than the few (usually with deep pockets) “pushing” what’s in their best interests.

Those of us in media, especially, want the walled gardens that come with apps, because WE have much more control over what happens inside. The essential postmodern problem with that, of course, is that WE are not in charge online. That has been handed over to everyday people (as stated by the FCC – the internet is a public utility), and if we truly wish to do business in such an environment, we need to be thinking more about how we can fit ourselves to that hegemony, instead of forcing archaic business practices in an environment where they don’t belong. Who could blame anyone for wanting to “own” the web?

The graph below is from comScore data via the IAB:

mobile browser versus application

Note the bottom line in the graph. The 57% app preference does NOT necessarily mean local media company apps – It refers mostly to the social media players

Not only is Facebook the top app (and by a mile), it’s also the top referrer for most media company websites. Those referrals are to individual pages via the mobile web, and we have no choice but to accept that. The same is true with Twitter, Tumblr, and every other big mobile “app” that belongs in all this research. Facebook rolled out an in-app browser last year to allow users to open links inside the app. But those links still come via the open web, because a browser is a browser is a browser. Despite what those with vested interests might say, I’m convinced that, as Google’s Brendon Kraham, Director, Emerging Ad Products at Google, said at the Borrell mobile conference in Dallas 5 years ago, “The browser is the new killer app (when it comes to mobile).”

Moreover, these phones have limited storage capacity, and while that is a technological challenge that will probably be overcome some day, people just aren’t likely to use that limited space on apps that they don’t use regularly. This includes media apps, and is especially important to young people. Think about it for a moment: why load a media app when you already have access to media via open web links from the apps you already use?

So let’s talk about ad units in this environment. It’s here where we separate the men from the boys, the pros from the wanna-bes, and the real thing from the pretenders in this brave new world. While we’ve been forcing people to view a 30-second pre-roll ad before a 1 minute video (or less), YouTube (Google) has been writing the book on pre-rolls for the web. 5-second pre-rolls and skippable, in-stream ads are getting lots of attention and delighting users. While research reveals that advertisers get more bang for the buck with longer pre-rolls, this ignores the not-so-friendly feelings of those required to sit through them. Since they are in charge, we ought to be paying attention. Besides, Google views it differently. Phil Farhi, product manager at Google’s YouTube told Mashable: “we see the ability to skip ads as another form of engagement.”

Ah, engagement, the Holy Grail of digital advertising. This is something that, in my experience, few in media really understand, which is why we keep pounding away with what worked in a different universe.

One interesting exercise is to sit back and, while looking at your smartphone, say “It’s a phone.” Then ask yourself what phones were used for back in the day, and how could I, as a media player, use a phone to make money? Nobody has a great answer to that question (yet), but whatever it is, it will be individualized and one-to-one.

I want to close this with some great quotes from the Salesforce.com/marketingcloud 2014 Mobile Behavior Report. Pay close attention to the intimate words the writers use to describe how people feel about their phones.

Consumers most frequently associate “mobile” with a smartphone/cell phone (54% selected this association), while only 14% said tablets/e-readers. Thirty-two percent also said they associate mobile with ease of use on the go, demonstrating that consumers feel a strong link between that device in their pockets and the connected freedom it brings.

Mobile devices are essential in consumers’ day-to-day lives. Consider these findings:

• 85% of our respondents said mobile devices are a central part of everyday life—and 90% of those aged 18-24 agreed.
• At an even greater rate, 89% say that mobile devices allow them to stay up to date with loved ones and social events. To that 89%, their mobile device signifies connectivity to all that’s going on in their world.
• On average, respondents report spending 3.3 hours a day on their smartphones.

Mobility is indispensable in the digital age, and our mobile devices are portals through which we connect with everything and everyone. Whether it’s a tablet…or, more typically, our smartphones, these mobile devices give us access to our social and business lives on demand.

As local media companies, we need to delve deeply into this while asking ourselves two questions. How can we fit ourselves into this intimate and user-driven experience? And how can we make money while doing it? They are not necessarily connected, but we still believe that media companies are capable of reinvention. If we are to do so, we must strategically begin with mobile and move backwards.