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You're on a Fool’s Errand

When publishers treat their mobile users like web users they're just wasting time

Remember back to web 1.0, when publishers were predominantly focused on print, and they were utterly confused by this whole “web” thing? History is repeating itself — this time web is the old and mobile is the new. But you know that already right? I say maybe you don’t.

When I ask publishers to tell me their goals and pain points on the web, they immediately know — increase content consumption and find more users that consume a lot of content. But when I talk to them about their mobile strategy I generally hear a lot of uncertainty. I often ask “why is mobile important” or “what are your goals for your mobile app” and I generally get one of the following responses:

  1. We don’t want a mobile app at all. We don't see the value and we see the very real potential to damage our core business — getting people to consume content on the web and mobile web.
  2. We know we need an app, it feels like a “must have” for all media companies, but we don't really know what the benefits are, or worse, detriments, we're kinda lost.
  3. We believe mobile is important and we're actively trying to figure out what the benefits are and what our goals should be. We're building features and testing different approaches to figure it out.
  4. Our mobile strategy is core to our business and we recognize that our mobile users are very different from our web users. We want to build a mobile experience that is optimized for those users so we can maximize their value to us.

Very few publishers are in the 4th bucket, but they all should be. A fair amount are in the first bucket; I actually wrote a Medium article about this one several months back, you can read it here. But most of them are in the 2nd or 3rd bucket, which makes sense, and is pretty much the same spot they were in 20 years ago when the web came to be.

Here's the black and white of it. Mobile is a really big deal; intuitively most everyone gets that. Moreover, its universally accepted that mobile usage is going to increase over the next decade. But you're being obtuse if you assume mobile is just another device to access your website, it’s not. Its a totally new medium and the vast majority of power users think of mobile as an “experience” not a wireless device to do things they already do at a desk.

For those companies in the first bucket, you're missing the boat — but you have identified some key insights. If you look at mobile apps in the same way you see mobile web, then yes, making a mobile app is a terrible idea. Simply making another window to the same experience as your desktop and mobile website will likely have a negative effect on your key metrics.

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I pity the fool!

There is a good chance you'll cannibalize users, decrease engagement and most of all kill off a great source of new traffic from Facebook and other social sites. These sources generate a lot of web and mobile web traffic via links, if you drive people to download your app to consume your content, you're going to miss out on a lot of free traffic.

So then, what is the mobile experience and what should publishers do about it? Before I answer that, let’s get clear on the distinction, “web user” and “mobile user”, because they different people altogether.

The core difference is this:

  1. Web users are “content consumption” oriented
  2. Mobile users are “community” oriented

The huge untapped opportunity for publishers comes in understanding this distinction and crafting their mobile strategy through this lens.

Aside from email, the web is a content consumption medium. Generally when we use the web we're consuming something. Think about it, you read articles, watch videos, search for things, etc. And now that web is 20+ years old, the audience naturally trends older (fuck, I was 21 in 1996, I'm 41 now). The web generation is consumption oriented, and this is why Google Search rules the web.

To some extent this difference is driven by the medium itself — web is just more conducive to consumption and less conducive to community. But I think it’s generational too; young people take the web for granted, it’s as obvious to them as the telephone or the library. Older folks still appreciate a time when the web didn't exist; a time when we all worked at desks and we actually had a phone sitting on it.

Of course, there is crossover; I actually see myself trending toward the mobile generation, whereas friends of mine that have worked in banking or real estate for the last 20 years trend towards the web generation. But playing averages, the bulk of web users consume more than they engage, and most mobile users engage more than they consume. Deep thoughts by Jack Handy right?

Armed with this fact, publishers should be doing exactly what they're doing — optimizing their web strategy to drive the maximum amount of content consumption, and find as many users as possible who consume a lot of content.

Your mobile device is just inherently more social and community oriented. Think about it; of the time you spend on your mobile device in a day, how much involves another person? SMS, Chat, Email, Phone, Livestream, etc. Probably more than 50%, maybe closer to 80%. That's why messaging apps like Kik, Whatsapp, Line, Periscope, Meerkat, etc. are so hugely popular on mobile. They are product categories that simply didn't exist on the web.

This is the lens you want to design a mobile strategy through — knowing that your mobile users are totally unique and designing an experience optimized to that difference will reap huge rewards.

Building for the mobile experience means creating something that is inherently community oriented. Publishers should not abandon content on mobile though, after all, you create content, that's what you do. Just do mobile differently, create an environment where people can connect and engage with each other around your content. Be the context for conversation. Be a spark that builds relationships.

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First and foremost it means taking some risk, just like you had to do in the early days of web. Opportunity doesn’t favor the meek, but really, what do you have to lose? If you're committed to mobile, but just don't know what to do, at least try something that won't mess up whats already working.

Next it means embracing behaviors that are not currently core for you and trusting that community oriented behaviors will lead to increase value for you. Don't try to get your mobile users to simiply consume more content.

They want to connect with other like-minded and engage around shared interests — your content is a catalyst for that. Empower users to discuss content and topics in your app, let them share their own opinions and encourage them to explore their passions and make new friends in the process. You can easily see that if they do all of this, they'll surely spend more time in your app. More time-in-app equates to more value to you, even if they aren't consuming more content directly. Really.

I know you make money from ads. When people read your content, you show them ads. So if people read less content, they see less ads, you make less money. Wrong. Mobile not only fosters new and exciting ways to engage your users, but it also affords new and exciting ways to deliver advertising to them. Trust that if you want to make money from your mobile users, the only metric you should care about is time-in-app.

With more time-in-app, one or both of the following will happen:

  1. Users will spend more engaging in community oriented activities, but also consume net more content just by the fact that they're in your app more.
  2. Users will spend more engaging in community oriented activities, and you monetize that behavior with high yield native ads.

Net net, if your goal is to generate more RPU, then either way you win. But my observation has been is that most users end up doing both — consuming more content, while also engaging in new community based behaviors. This is what I call a compound behavior. A compound behavior when one action causes another to occur. The more users chat with each other for example, the more they read articles and vice-versa. So instead of trading one behavior for another, you get the best of both worlds, and increase the overall ROI of a single user 2x and frequently much more.

Incidentally, we're starting to see compound behaviors in all the big social apps — in fact they're desperate to make it happen. Products like Snapchat Stories and WhatsApp Brand Accounts are designed to push people from user-to-user messaging to content consumption, primarily because they know this is the only way they can monetize. Those apps nailed mobile engagement but have’t nailed mobile monetization. It’s actually sort of funny — these messaging apps trying to do the exact opposite of what I'm suggesting publishers do.

Companies like Snapchat, Kik and Whatsapp have an inherent problem with this strategy however; these products were built first and foremost to empower community and user-to-user conversation. There is an expectation of privacy, and a lack of context, which makes it difficult to push people from a chat to an article. They have no choice but to try and figure it out because they can't monetize chat — nobody wants to see an ad in a text message conversation with their best friend.

This issue doesn’t apply to traditional publishers — you actually end up providing real value to your users when you introduce community around your content. And, best of all, you can double-dip on the monetization front by serving up ads in the community as well as in your content. The context is content not friendship, so advertising in the community is acceptable.

And, by the way, even if your primary goal isn't generating ad revenue, you can benefit greatly from this approach. Once you empower and engage your mobile users, they can be directed towards other goals like inviting friends, social sharing, data collection, user demographic, geofencing, selling product, driving subscriptions and more. Mobile affords so many more creative ways to get value from a user — much more than stacking your web page with more banner ads.

If you're not convinced, I don't blame you. We have collected data from several small and medium sized apps that suggest all this is true, and of course intuitively I believe it is. But we can’t empirically prove it… yet. That said, you can agree it quite plausible at least, and certainly warrants further experimentation, particularly given that your current mobile strategy isn't working for shit anyway.

Here is some more fodder for the fire. Take the recent mobile report from Mary Meeker of Kleiner Perkins.

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This slide tells you all you need to know. In a nutshell, consumers spend 24% of their time on mobile devices, but only 8% of the total dollars spent by advertisers is allocated to mobile. That means there is a huge fucking untapped opportunity in mobile for publishers and that's if you think mobile use is staying static — of course you know it isn't, so we've really only scratched the surface here.

To recap; publishers, you know you need to embrace mobile some how some way. Hopefully you also see that duplicating your web strategy on mobile may in fact hurt current web and mobile web consumption, which of course freaks you out — because that’s your bread and butter right! I encourage you to look at mobile from a completely different lens — see that mobile users are different and should be treated differently from web users. And if you are bold enough to create a mobile experience that is community oriented, where your content is the context for engagement, man, it’s all green field from here!

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Let me close with this clever analogy. At one time Disney created content… you know, animations and the like. But later they realized a certain sub-section of their customers were so enamored by the cute and lovable Disney characters they might want to buy Mickey and Minnie stuffed animals and that type of shit. Then they thought maybe some of their customers would also like to interact with their content in a physical way, on rides and attractions, so they opened up Disneyland. You get the idea.

But here’s the thing. Neither of those behaviors cannibalized the other. The people simply spent more time interacting with the Disney brand — they did compound behaviors. And, more importantly, in the cases where a customer only somewhat liked the Disney content, they often ended up being hardcore fans of the product or the theme parks. Had Disney not optimized the business for the various unique needs of the customers, they would have left a very significant amount of money and value on the table.

Thats mobile. There is great untapped value to be had from your mobile users if you give them what they want. But what they want is not what you currently offer. So please, don't make a mobile app that does the exact same thing as your website — because who the fuck wants to go on a fool's errand.

Written by

Entrepreneur and 5x founder. @velocify @amplifyla @markuphero @audiojoyapps @geekingapp | High school teacher. Content marketer. Startup junkie. Dad.

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