Mobilizing for mobile before it's too late
Amazingly, newspapers are making the same self-defeating mistakes with their mobile initiatives that they did with the Internet.
If they don't do better this time, publishers will blow a major opportunity to preserve the value of their franchises as the power of print continues to wane.
Here's why mobile matters: Mary Meeker, a former securities analyst at Morgan Stanley with a better than average track record of envisioning the future, believes that more page views will be consumed on mobile screens by 2014 than on conventional PCs and laptops.
Meeker left Wall Street at the end of last year to become a partner in a major Silicon Valley venture firm where she will specialize in investing in mobile start-ups.
Although publishers are properly focused on mobile, most of them are fumbling this opportunity the same way they fumbled the Web. Here's how that went:
When publishers no longer could deny the gathering importance of the Internet in the 1990s, all but a handful of them shoveled the content from their print products onto their websites and gave it away for free. Seeing little point in Internet advertising, most publishers gave print advertisers "bonus" online ads that they essentially trained advertisers not to value.
Publishers didn't make much money doing this, but the strategy, if you can call it that, made them feel good about themselves at industry functions.
Publishers didn't get serious about the Net until print advertising began the five-year swoon that so far has carved some 50 percent off the record $49 billion in sales the industry notched in 2005. The faster print unraveled, the more feverishly publishers sought to build traffic and sell ads on their websites.
But they continued freely giving away the same expensive-to-produce content they put in their newspapers, resulting in two unintended consequences:
1. They shifted a growing number of formerly paying print readers to the Web, while barely attracting any new consumers to their online platforms. Although you won't see this on anyone's rate card, every savvy publisher knows that some 90% of the traffic on her website comes from current or former print subscribers.
2. Because they failed to differentiate their print and Web offerings, publishers almost certainly hastened the erosion of their circulation and, thus, the print advertising that is the mainstay of their business. Weekday circulation has slid 37% in the last two decades to a point that only one out of every three households today takes a newspaper, compared to an average national penetration of more than 100% in 1970.
In other words, the online efforts undertaken by most publishers probably hurt them more than they helped them. If nothing else, it cost newspapers decades of time, giving a world of digital competitors a handsome head start.
Now that the move to mobile is giving publishers their last, best chance for a do-over, they are doing exactly the same un-strategic things they did on the Web in hopes of achieving a different outcome. No less a figure than Albert Einstein considered this sort of thinking to be a form of insanity.
With few notable exceptions, the mobile apps released by newspapers to date do little more than faithfully reproduce the same content already carried in print and on their websites. In addition to typically being free for consumers, the apps carry little, if any, advertising.
Worst of all, the apps are doing nothing to attract the two-thirds of the people who do not happen to read a newspaper or visit its website. And a great number of those people are in the under-55 generation coveted most by advertisers.
What to do? Instead of replicating the same old - and I do mean old - products on Android or the iPad, publishers need to develop apps that take advantage of the characteristics that make these powerful computing platforms so damn compelling:
1. People use mobile devices to find information, get directions, check prices, play games, listen to music, and, yes, sometimes even surf the news. Because consumers are not passive, successful apps must be engaging and transactional.
2. Mobile devices don't just put the user in control; they also enrich the experience by knowing exactly where consumers are - and, in the case of many apps, exactly who they are. Accordingly, successful apps must be customizable and geographically aware.
3. Community and self-expression are as elemental to the digital experience as the information the media dispense or the transactions they enable. Successful apps foster community and enable user control.
Static apps filled with yesterday's news just won't cut it. This time, newspapers really, really can't afford to get this wrong. Really.
(c) 2011 Editor & Publisher