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It’s for you! … or is it?

Keeping up with readers is no easy task, but today’s circulators actually need to be one step ahead of their readers if they are to take full advantage of new technologies and changing lifestyles. According to Roundpoint’s Trevor Shonfeld, being one step ahead means offering mobile content.

By Trevor Shonfeld

Unwary editors and publishers now face the most substantial threat to circulation since mass-market newspaper readership started to decline in the 1970s, and it is in almost every pocket and handbag in the UK.

Mobile communications is unstoppable. Circulation for each of the four major UK mobile operators is around 12 million — totalling nearly 50 million. Mobile’s reach and penetration is the envy of every other medium. The phone in the pocket is well on its way to becoming a massive delivery medium for news, information and entertainment.

Threat or opportunity? The answer is both. Most members of the UK population above the age of 10 years possess and regularly use a mobile phone. And although someone using the phone is certainly not reading print or looking at a web site, that’s not the complete picture. Mobile phones are not only pervasive for voice use. Data communication through handsets is fast becoming widespread.

Five years ago, few expected that the population as a whole would embrace a device as awkward as a telephone keypad to type out messages – least of all the mobile operators. Today text messaging accounts for around 20% of most operators’ revenues. It has become outstandingly popular across all age groups, and especially amongst the young: a powerful force shaping the media experiences and expectations of a new generation.

New phone features

Now mobile operators are bringing new phone features to market as they search for new revenue sources in a market where ownership has reached saturation. The thrust is to seek growing income from alternative uses of phones that utilize the latest features. Sales of camera phones dwarf those of digital cameras, ably demonstrating mobile’s ability to both hijack and grow existing markets. On today’s new handsets, games, music and news are standard offerings. Video is looming.

This is a threat to traditional publishers only if they allow it to be. For now, the publisher owns the reader relationship and that is the most valuable asset for building goodwill and long-term sales growth.

But consider this. Readers do not just ‘read’. They have lives to lead, families and friends to be with, work and study to occupy their day; evenings to go out and be entertained. They watch and take part in sports, pursue personal interests and are presented with an ever-widening choice of entertainment options at home from music, movies and TV to gaming and the Internet. They take short breaks and long holidays – increasingly distant from home. This options-rich but time-poor lifestyle is becoming pervasive across all age groups. Now ask this. Do they carry their favourite news title with them through this lifestyle? Obviously not. Do they carry their phone with them at all times?

So just as today’s publisher calls out to readers enjoying an ever-widening set of distractions, the approach to building readership remains ever more challenging. The first step is to avoid denial. The phone, with its increasing range of facilities, is here to stay. With the coming of 3G to all networks, access to data and video channels will be faster and more convenient - a friendlier experience than ever before.

Benefits of mobile

As a channel, mobile delivers some supreme benefits: first, because almost everyone has one, second, it’s alongside most owners day and night; and third, it answers the need for "I want it now!" like nothing else. It is becoming the ultimate personal device, offering not only conversation and short messages, but full email, word processing, spreadsheets, presentations, news and information, as well as entertainment features like games, crosswords, movies and other downloads.

So what is its role for those with circulations to build? Almost all traditional publishers deliver a mix of news, information, education, opinion and entertainment. The precise blend will vary from title to title as will the commercial model, from free content to build an audience for advertisers, to paid content with no ads at all, but all publications fit within this spectrum.

Most publishers operate web sites too – some good, some bad. The web’s potential for timeliness and interaction are well-known: news and data on web sites can be updated daily or by the minute, and reader input can be incorporated into the product as never before. Yet some publications’ web offerings still operate very much along the lines of the print model. And just as smarter publishers are working out how to get the best from the web, along comes mobile.

New-wave niche publishers and the operators themselves are already exploiting mobile’s unique capabilities. If your target readership includes anyone under the age of 30 having a mobile presence is very important. But, how can the publisher weave a more attractive product than ever before from the combination of print, web and mobile? Each medium certainly has its own place, and "I want it now, wherever I happen to be" is what mobile does best. The accessibility of the web – "I want information that’s right up to the minute but can wait until I am in front of the PC" has a clear role, while print brings "I want it in depth with considered opinion that helps me shape a view or happily fill my leisure time".

Integrated approach

If these are the points of difference then it’s not too difficult to blend these media in a distinctive way and capitalise on the benefit that each brings to the user. In-depth news and opinion, complex graphics and a leisurely read rest mostly with the print vehicle, the web is really good at a more ‘get things done’ approach to information and entertainment, while mobile can bring immediate headlines and critical information to the user wherever they happen to be. The phone can get the news to the user the moment they wake or the instant they need it – especially if a print version is out of date or yet to appear, and access to a PC is not convenient – this is particularly true for travelers and anyone far from home or office. Each medium can carry advertising but only the phone provides such a simple and direct data or voice communication straight from the handset immediately interest is piqued. Click the link and it dials the number. Place an order, organize a test drive, request a brochure, talk to a sales agent - the technology is there to do it and do it now.

But the mobile user can also be channelled to from print and the web, so that their medium of choice always connects with their title of choice. Sport is a perfect example. Fans want instant news but they also want in-depth reporting. In business news, market updates by phone complement trend analysis on the web or in print. Games ("I’m bored and I want it now!") satisfy instant needs. Publishers who strengthen their brands and titles in ways which harness the power of each medium will build respect and standing amongst an audience who welcome having their lifestyle catered for and enhanced in subtle ways. Such titles will be the brands "to be with" and will prosper. They will become the company to keep, and their publishers the company to advertise with.

Simon Ashley, commercial manager at News Group Newspapers has a clear view of what mobile means to his titles, The Sun and News of the World. "The youth of today are moving more and more towards mobile for their news and entertainment. It follows that a publisher must include mobile to stay relevant. Successful publishers have to go where the eyeballs are." The young market is important to Ashley, "Mobile is an important part of the future. Young people are more digitally aware and many already get their content, music and games via their phone. Publishers will definitely need to distribute content through a variety of platforms. This will include print, the web and, of course, mobile."

The brand strengthening role among younger readers is equally obvious to Steven Trew, head of mobile at the Financial Times, "We believe our strong presence in the mobile space strengthens the FT brand by adding value for our readers and advertisers alike. Mobile means we can extend the brand to a new younger demographic and demonstrate our innovation in news content provision. FT readers are particularly mobile; for example they make, on average, five overseas business trips a year and mostly commute to and from work daily. The FT provides mobile services so that they can receive FT news content whilst away from their desk or traveling and reach their destination well informed and ready to start work."

The good news too is that using mobile to reach readers wherever they happen to be is attractively economical. Mobile content does not need expensive production or distribution processes. Used the right way, mobile also gives the publisher an enhanced dialogue with readers. Readers who can text back or fill in forms for instant response get instant gratification. The dialogue begins, the relationship develops, loyalty grows and so does word-of-mouth. Circulation growth can only follow when mobile is used as a planned component of an integrated strategy.

Getting started

Technically it is now easier than ever to use mobile in the media mix. Companies like Roundpoint take away the complexity of the wide range of formats and gateways involved in the delivery over the phone. They provide unique off-the-shelf engineered solutions, usually driven direct from the same single source that feeds the presses. For the publisher this is virtually a plug-and-play type solution. Cash layout is small and revenues begin the moment the service is switched on. Content may be segmented, summarized, shaped or even customized to fit the editorial intent. One-stop delivery and subscription process can be integrated direct with exiting telesales operations or operate stand-alone from the handset itself. One-off free views can promote and lead to full paying subscriptions. The phone brings incredible reach and instant marketing together.

Portals or direct?

Publishers can choose to offer content direct from print or web with simple techniques like "Text Try My News" to 88686 or by bundling mobile with existing subscriptions. This is simple and effective and leaves most of the revenue with the media owner. Alternatively, the leading UK operators offer their customers access to an aggregation of content displayed in portals that appear on the handset. Best known of these are Vodafone Live, O2 Active, Orange World and T Mobile’s T-Zones. Their policies toward media owners may vary but in general they take a slice of subscription revenue and in some cases an additional service fee. These operator-controlled portals give publishers a direct signpost to their content on the phone, and effectively that is what the publisher pays for in agreeing to a revenue split. The drawbacks are that ‘top-level’ portal space is a scarce and expensive commodity, and that the publisher may lose reader control unless an integrated cross-medium approach is taken. The upside is the very large number of potential ‘new readers’.

All this is taking place during the rapid growth of a formidable new media channel. We estimate that almost one third of the phones now in the hands of subscribers are capable of viewing mobile content. Couple this with the fact that virtually all phones sold today are mobile content-friendly and the realization hits that a true media giant is quietly growing. In less than two years from now the mobile channel will be ubiquitous. Remember SMS, which today delivers a staggering 1 billion plus messages every day between UK subscribers. There can be little doubt about the market opportunity mobile brings to the astute publisher or about the back door it can leave open for a competitor to steal in and grab prize territory. As Steven Trew sees it, "Publishers who ignore the mobile medium risk losing readers to their more forward-thinking competitors and missing out on additional revenues from content sold through mobile channels. In the future, advertisers might also prefer to place business with publishers who can offer a mobile audience".

Already a growing band of publishers know that the mobile can be a powerful tool to use strategically, give higher levels of reader satisfaction and bring highly focused tactical reach to advertisers. Mobile editions, suitably provisioned, are even ABC-valid.

So the question is not ‘If?’ but ‘When?’’ The countdown has already started for publishers who want to go mobile, grow circulation, enhance brands, and build revenue. It’s highly likely that the call to go mobile really is "For You".