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How social media can jumpstart your mobile strategy

by: Amy Gahran |

June 09, 2011

How social media can jumpstart your mobile strategy

Increasingly, social media is largely mobile by default. Over half (54%) of people who use Twitter users access it via mobile devices, according to new research from the Pew Internet and American Life project. Similarly, a recent analysis of Facebook posts showed that one-third are made via mobile devices—and most of these come from Facebook’s mobile site, not its smartphone apps.

Therefore, social media is already part of your mobile strategy, whether you planned for that or not. News organizations can turn this to their advantage…

By Amy Gahran

If your business model depends on attracting the largest and most engaged audience possible (something that’s true for nearly any news organization, from major national dailies to small local or niche online startups), then it makes sense to go where your potential audience is. It also makes sense to provide some kind of valuable, engaging experience to users on any type of mobile device.

Right now, according to comScore, about 70% of mobile devices in use in the US are still feature phones, not smartphones. This huge potential mobile media market remains drastically underserved by news and information services.

But Twitter hasn’t overlooked or underestimated the low end of the mobile market.

Pew did not inquire about the types of phones used by mobile Twitter users, but it’s probably every type of phone. News orgs can learn much from Twitter on this front.

Whenever I give a talk about mobile media, I use Twitter and Facebook as prime examples of what it means to have an integrated, inclusive mobile strategy that gives people opportunities to connect to you in some meaningful, valuable way via any mobile device.

In particular, Twitter exploits nearly every available mobile communication channel. Of course, Twitter has an advantage in that it was designed from the start to be usable on simple feature phones via SMS text messaging (which is why tweets are limited to 140 characters). But Twitter doesn’t overlook any mobile channel.

Twitter users also can choose to receive e-mail notifications. Both e-mail and SMS are among the most popular mobile activities for users across all types of phones. Even people with the expensive, sophisticated smartphones tend to e-mail and text daily.

There is also a plethora of native Twitter apps for every smartphone platform, developed both by Twitter and by others using Twitter’s API. In fact, Twitter recently bought Tweetdeck, a mobile/desktop Twitter app especially popular with “power users.”

But Twitter is also a master of the mobile web. Specifically, Twitter recently enhanced its mobile web site—using HTML5 to make this site function even more like an app on smartphones with full-featured browsers. But Twitter still offers a much simpler (and user-friendly) web app that works even on the limited “microbrowsers” still common on most feature phones.

So what can news orgs do?

First of all, make sure your articles display reasonably well on feature phone browsers. When a mobile user gets a link to one of your articles via a social media contact, clicking that link should automatically result in easy access to that story—not to your site’s mobile home page, or to a page that is frustrating or impossible to navigate or read on a simpler handset.

To accomplish this, your site should auto-detect mobile visitors and automatically route them to mobile-optimized versions of the specific web pages they’re requesting.

Test your mobile web layout on popular web-enabled feature phones—especially for individual story pages, not just your home page or section pages. Make sure that your content displays at least reasonably well on those devices.

Ultimately, you may have two or more progressively stripped-down mobile themes for your story pages, and serve them to devices as needed—a useful implementation of responsive design. You could route smartphone/tablet mobile web users to the more fully featured mobile layout, and all other mobile visitors to a more feature-phone-friendly layout.

Put your site search engine at or near the top of every mobile page—and make sure search results get displayed in a mobile-optimized layout.

Once your web presence is optimized to accommodate a wide range of mobile traffic, your social media activity becomes a more effective tool to attract more mobile visitors. You can amplify this effect simply by imagining before you make a social media post that you’re communicating with someone using a cell phone, maybe even a feature phone. What text and link information would be most useful to people on the go?

Your social media mobile outreach doesn’t even have to be web-dependent. For instance, maybe offer some Twitter channels that only broadcast certain kinds of alerts, and encourage readers to subscribe to receive those messages via SMS using Twitter’s fast follow service.

Don’t rely solely on social media to go mobile. While social media can help you expand your mobile presence, I strongly recommend that news orgs should use social media only as launch point for mobile expansion. As Scott Rosenberg recently noted, there are good reasons for news orgs to avoid handing over all or most of your interaction channels to social media services or other third parties.

In the long run, consider offering your own SMS or e-mail services for alerts and engagement. These aren’t just for people with cheap phones—text messaging is popular with all mobile users, and mobile e-mail also is popular, regardless of phone type. And of course, making your web presence mobile friendly is entirely in your control.

The point is: It’s important to start NOW to reach out to mobile users, especially those with lower-tech handsets and limited/no data plans, by whatever means possible—and social media can jumpstart this process.

Even though mobile technology is a moving target, the low end will probably always represent the largest portion of the mobile media market. You don’t have to do much in order to demonstrate some value to the majority of mobile users in your coverage area—and outshine your local competition.

It doesn’t matter that mobile users with low-end phones can’t experience the complete value of your content or advertising. It still makes sense to try to bring them into your fold today. At least serve them something worthwhile that they can access and use. This should encourage them to turn to your news brand via other channels—or to recommend you to others. If you gain their loyalty now, they’ll remember you if/when they upgrade devices.

The worst thing a news org can do is to act like it doesn’t notice, care about, or value the majority of the today’s mobile market. If the news industry continues to leave that market on the table, the next Craigslist will undoubtedly come along and eat your lunch. Again.

The News Leadership 3.0 blog is made possible by a grant to USC Annenberg from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

By Amy Gahran, 06/09/11 at 11:42 am

Amy Gahran

Amy Gahran is a journalist, editor, trainer, entrepreneur, strategist, and media consultant based in Boulder, Colorado. In addition to writing
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