RJI News Collaboratory

We've been producing news content daily for a few months now. We recently launched a weather section that has turned out to be quite successful, at least so far. There's plenty more content we could be putting out... Now, the question is, what's the best way to get all this content to the general public?

As I've mentioned before, I firmly believe the web is the future... But what kind of web? Of course, a lot of online news operations focus on traditional web sites, and like many of these operations, our web site is still our main method of distribution. However, I think there are a lot of other options for distribution out there.... For instance, the growing mobile market.

Local Edition has had an iPhone app for quite a while (I wrote it early last year), and we plan to launch an iPad app very soon. Like many news apps, ours is largely a way to read content from our web site, though it does offer a "Contribute" tab allowing users to submit story ideas and photos or video. (it also allows article sharing via Facebook, twitter and email). As I see more and more people accessing the web from iPhones and other mobile devices, I have to wonder just how much having something like an iPhone or Android app can benefit a small operation. Do users consume enough content on the go to make an app a useful tool? Does anyone else here HAVE an app, and if so, what are your observations? (and if you don't have an app but would like one, feel free to get In touch, I may be able to help....)

I don't think an app is a viable platform on its own (at least not for a small local operation), but when it's used to compliment a web site, I think there's a lot of potential.

Anyway, this is all just a random bit of food for thought.... And speaking of food, the waitress just brought my dinner out. Time to put the iPad away and eat! ;-)

Until next time...

--Eric

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Comment by RJI Collaboratory on July 19, 2010 at 11:45am
One caution on SMS: It's generally pricier than most people think to publish via SMS. There are cheap SMS services/gateways out there, but many of them push their own ads through the service, which may or may not be appropriate.

You will pay, one way or another, for every SMS you send (so multiply #messages x # recipients). So there are up-front costs with this.

Also there are a lot of laws related to spamming via SMS (notably the CAN-SPAM act, and many state and sometimes local laws), so be sure you know what these laws are and stay on the right side of them.

I'm not down on SMS, but I think most news publishers aren't aware of the cost, legal, and other issues involved. Inform yourself before you dive in.
Comment by Eric Wotila on July 18, 2010 at 1:17pm
Great advice from both of you -- while I have the advantage of being an iOS developer (and thus was able to create an iPhone/iPad app on the cheap), creating content for more basic phones -- like SMS alerts and WAP sites -- sounds like a great idea. It's definitely on my list now!
Comment by John Hawbaker on July 18, 2010 at 10:01am
Hi Eric,

Native apps can be an expensive proposition, especially if you want to serve users of iOS, Android and other smartphone platforms. I think you'd be better served by creating a great mobile version of your website than investing in native apps.

To address Amy's point, you may want to look at different types of content to target for feature phones. You could offer SMS alerts for breaking stories, or a pared-down version of the site for popular content that people would want on the go (not necessarily full-length stories). A mobile-friendly events calendar is also a good idea.

I think we do smartphone versions well on our local site, chattarati.com, using browser detection and CSS, as Amy described.
Comment by RJI Collaboratory on July 16, 2010 at 2:43pm
Correction to below: It *is* common for many feature phones to offer at least limited web capability :-)
Comment by RJI Collaboratory on July 16, 2010 at 2:25pm
Hi, Eric

I've been focusing heavily on mobile media lately. Pew just came out with an important study, Mobile Access 2010, which indicates that mobile internet access has pretty much gone mainstrea. I wrote about this recently for KDMC and CNN Tech.

The nut graf:
- In the past year 38% of U.S. cell phone users accessed the internet from their phones -- about 89 million Americans, and a huge jump from 25% in 2009.

- Pew also found that 53% of Americans who use their phones to go online do so at least once per day. That's more than 47 million daily mobile internet users in the U.S.

- According to Forrester, by the end of 2009 only 17% of U.S. mobile subscribers owned smartphones.
So it's likely that most U.S. mobile internet users are going online not from smartphones, but from simpler, less costly and more limited "feature phones."

- Smartphones are getting most of they hype and attention these days, but they're really expensive. Even if you get a carrier-subsidized smartphone, you'll pay at least a couple hundred bucks up front plus about $100 month for a 2-year phone/data contract. Yes, family plans and unlocked phones can cut that cost a bit, but they're still damn pricey. It's still a rough economy, and that's beyond the economic grasp of most mobile users.

My advice: Since right now the vast majority of US cell phone owners user simpler, cheaper, more limited "feature phones," and since it's not common for feature phones to offer some limited web capability, make sure you serve the feature phone market first before hitting the smartphone market with apps.

Right now, and for the next few years at least, feature phones are where most of the mobile web market is. Beyond that, Blackberry is by far the most popular model of smartphone -- and the most popular Blackberry models look more like candy bars than iPhones, with physical keypads and small, simple browsers. Make sure your web site plays nice with these devices.

Also, as wireless networks have to support traffic from a mushrooming population of more data-intensive devices, carriers are struggling to keep up -- which means in many areas increasing wireless network congestion is a problem. Which means you can have your pricey smartphone with fancy data plan, but if you're not on wifi then too often you'll just be waiting and waiting for pages to download and apps to update.

If you want to reach the vast majority of today's mobile users, to get their attention and loyalty now, focus on meeting their needs, with the devices they have in hand. Do that well, before you focus on smartphones.

Most feature phones (even ones with nice looking touchscreens) use limited "microbrowsers" that don't handle normal web sites well. I recommend creating an alternate theme for your site based on WAP (wireless application protocol), which is what's used to generate mobile-friendly sites like m.cnn.com.

Then, run an auto-detect script that can tell when someone is visiting your site from a mobile device, and route mobile users to the mobile-friendly version of your site first. (Give them a link up top to view the full site if they prefer). Auto-detection is not perfect, but it's far more user-friendly than expecting mobile visitors to remember a special URL just to access the mobile-friendly version of your site.

Yes, feature phones are gradually getting smarter -- but I'm pretty convinced there will always be a mobile digital divide based on the cost/complexity of devices and service. The vast majority of mobile users will always prefer cheaper, simpler devices and service, so the low end of the mobile market will probably always be larger. If your business model is based in part on attracting the largest possible audience, you need a sound lean mobile strategy.

- Amy Gahran

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