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Mobile – why do some publishers still not get it?

The move to mobile should not be taking us by surprise. The writing has been on the wall for years, yet, as an industry, we continue to be wrong-footed by developments in the mobile space. Martin Belam urges publishers to eat, sleep and breathe mobile.

Martin Belam

Posted on: 26 November 2015

NME Daily doesn’t try and be a comprehensive app for all the content that NME is producing.
Publishing content aimed at mobile phones feels like it has been a thorn in the side of the publishing industry for decades. Initially, phones could only display very rudimentary pages, and so millions of pounds were poured into mobile publishing strategies that often produced different designs for stripped-down “mobile only” sites, and whole teams were hired within publishers aiming at solving the question of what to do with mobile.

Yet almost in the blink of an eye, having a link on a page saying “Visit our full website” or “Visit desktop website” when it is viewed on a phone has gone from a sign that a publisher is on top of having a mobile strategy, to being a sign that your mobile publishing technology is out-dated.

The shift of web consumption from the desktop to mobile has been a long time coming, but mobile is the dominant form that users access the web today. An Ofcom analysis from Q1 in 2015 showed that 33% of UK internet users consider their smartphone their most important device for connecting to the web. 30% said laptop and 19% said tablet. Only 14% of people considered the desktop their primary device.

Looking at these figures, leading analyst Ben Evans has gone as far as to say: “For as long as the idea of the 'mobile internet' has been around, we've thought of it as a cut-down subset of the 'real' internet. I'd suggest it's time to invert that - to think about mobile as the real internet and the desktop as the limited, cut-down version.”

Evans also made the point that often when we think of “mobile” usage we are still stuck in a mindset from the last decade. That “mobile” usage means “on the move”. It’s not true anymore. At any given time, people are likely to use the screen closest to them. If you are fiddling about on social media while half-watching a TV show, the chances are that you are using a mobile device while sitting on your sofa, rather than getting up to find where you left your laptop or to sit down at the desktop machine taking up loads of space in the corner of the room.

Collectively we need to stop asking for new features on our websites

So why have news and publishing organisations been so historically bad at building and designing for mobile? I’d say in part this is because in the DNA of any organisation with print at the centre, it’s always been possible to get pages re-drawn and re-designed with a wave of the hand. An editor can ask for a story to have “more impact” and a whole range of measures from colour, to font size, to image cropping and positioning can be deployed.

In the heavily templated world of the web, that has been much harder to do. The frustration that every story has the same headline weight, every story has the same image aspect ratio and size, has actually driven complexity into content management systems.

The last design of the Guardian’s website, for example, had a thing called “the bento box” which could be added to the top of the desktop homepage to gather together a set of content around a single big event known in advance; eg. an election or a breaking news story like a terrorist attack. Likewise MirrorOnline has a “wipeout” template that can be deployed, putting one massive big story at the top of the page.

This ability to vary the look of a site feels very important editorially, to reflect really big events, but it means loads of extra design and coding and buttons and switches in the CMS interface.

For most publishers, all this effort on story presentation very often does absolutely nothing on mobile. And it is symptomatic of how mobile has been treated like a second-class citizen.

Priya Ganapati: “If you are a small or medium sized publisher, don’t have a news app.”

Consumers are biting back

A significant development in the mobile market over the last couple of months has been a marked increase in the use of ad-blocking and content-blocking technologies. With Apple’s decision to allow content-blocking apps to run from the app store on the newest version of iOS, what was a niche activity on the desktop web now has a potentially much wider audience, with significant financial implications for the publishing industry.

However, for many users, activating this kind of content filter isn’t about privacy or about taking some stand against advertising. It is simply about the performance of the mobile web.

As a whole, publishers have not done a great job of optimising the performance of their sites for mobile. Connected to a corporate network, and viewed on a massive desktop monitor, we’ve got to a point where people could ignore some aspects of site performance optimisation. That’s absolutely not the case if you are impatiently waiting for a code-heavy bloated page to load over a patchy 3G connection.

The New York Times recently published a dataset showing that many major news sites are very slow to load on mobile phones because of advertising, and Frédéric Filloux has calculated that a New York Times article can take five seconds to display the content, whereas a page on Wikipedia will load a similar length article in less than a second.

Now, some people have seen the rise of content-blocking as a huge opportunity. Eric Meyer, one of the web’s authorities on the CSS mark-up language, says that the effect of these content-blockers is “a two-decade reset button”.

A mobile web that doesn’t load “Javascript, CSS, cookies, and web fonts” takes us back to 1995.

“Just as in 1995”, Meyer says, “publishers are faced with a landscape where they’re not sure how to make money, or even if they can make money… We’re right back where we were, twenty years ago. Except this: we already know a bunch of stuff that doesn’t work.”

Meyer doesn’t see this development as a threat to advertising revenue in total - he sees it as a threat to ads “delivered via bloated, badly managed, security-risk mechanisms”.

It’s a very optimistic view to take - and not one that I’m sure the commercial departments in many publishers will sympathise with.

But ad-blocking isn’t the only trend in publishing that is trying to put right development practices at publishers which haven’t kept pace with the tech giants of the web.

When I try to think of publishers who are designing well for the mobile web, I struggle

I find this worrying. I spend all day every day immersed in the web, but if you ask me who is doing mobile well from the ranks of traditional publishers, I really am hard-pressed to name anybody.

Part of the problem, especially in the app space, is that apps solve problems for people. News and publishing apps generally don’t.

I tend to side with Priya Ganapati, who is director of platform products, Quartz and who previously worked on mobile apps for the Washington Post and Dow Jones. She argues that the lesson she has learnt from five years making news apps for phones is “don’t”: “If you are a small or medium sized publisher, don’t have a news app. If you already have one, shut it down. Use your resources to make your mobile web site better.”

When I think about publishers solving a problem for the user, two examples do spring to mind.

BuzzFeed News app is not trying to invite click-throughs; it simply states what the top three stories are.
One is the BuzzFeed News app. What I like about it is that when you open it up, you get three or four bullet points that sum up the top news right there and then. It’s not trying to invite click-through, or sell a curiosity gap, it simply states what the top three stories are. Yes, it’s a little US-centric, but I can guarantee that I can open that app up when I wake up and instantly know whether any major news has developed while I was asleep. It also has an informal chatty tone which seems well suited to the personal device that is the mobile phone.

Another app that I keep coming back to, and which solves a problem, is NME Daily. It doesn’t try and be a comprehensive app for all the content that NME is producing, it is simply a stream of new tracks, video and TV / film trailers that I might be interested in.

But, just maybe, we’re not going to have to solve the problems ourselves

If publishers have traditionally seen the mobile web as an add-on to their main digital publishing, there are lots of companies out there for whom making the web work well on mobile isn’t a luxury, but essential.

Facebook’s Instant Articles initiative might be partly about Facebook getting gate-keeping control of content on their network, it might be partly about them making their own play into editorial, but it is also most certainly a reaction to what they can see when they use their own apps. That is, they relentlessly optimise them to have the best and fastest performance on people’s phones, and they can see that when people tap external links to a lot of top publishing sites, there is a massive time lag as the content gradually loads.

The Washington Post has dived straight in, making 100% of their content available in Facebook’s new format, and a range of other publishers have recently signed up. Facebook claim they are seeing instant articles shared more frequently than regular external links.

And there is another move by another tech player announced in recent weeks aimed at speeding up the reader’s access to content - Google’s AMP. It’s a more open project than the partnerships that get a publisher access to Apple News or Facebook Instant Articles, but it still feels like a tech-giant exercising a bit of gate-keeping. As Joshua Benton put it for Nieman Lab: “In a world of controlled platforms and walled app gardens, the web is the last open space standing, built over two decades, and there’s something irksome about a few Google engineers deciding which parts to ban.”

Ultimately, there is a massive trade-off at play here for publishing companies. Do you invest in your own tech to deliver a great user experience on phones, or do you consider that you can’t out-tech companies like Apple, Facebook and Google, so you should just partner with them?

Either way, if your business hasn’t already been prioritising publishing for mobile for some time, you are undoubtedly already playing catch-up.

“As a whole, publishers have not done a great job of optimising the performance of their sites for mobile.”

About Martin Belam
(Details last updated: 23 March 2016)

Martin Belam is social & new formats editor for the Guardian in London. He helped set up UsVsTh3m and Ampp3d for the Daily Mirror, and has worked at Sony and the BBC as well as spending time running his own consultancy.

Twitter: @MartinBelam

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