After meeting and working with publishers around the world and reading all the reports out lately about news consumption habits on smartphones vs tablets vs computers, it is easy to get the feeling that you are running after the Rapid Transit Train of Technology as it pulls out of the station. First the Desktop “with the internet”, then mobile phones with simple text messaging and now smartphones – all the graphs are indicating the Millennials’ growing consumption of news on smartphones, while the older generations are more comfortably paced, using a variety of digital devices to feed their news habit throughout the day.
When we were working on the digital newsroom strategy for some of the biggest UK and European media groups about seven years ago, the Desktop was our main concern. Smartphones, i.e. the iPhone, was not released back then and there was no tablet or anything similar even in sight. Today, desktop traffic has been overtaken by tablet and or mobile phones traffic and many countries, especially in the emerging market, skip this digital platform completely and jump directly to mobile devices.
So what will tomorrow bring? SmartTV at home? The Google glasses? The possibly very soon launched iWatch? Actually nobody knows what will take off in the consumer market and will become the next “big thing” for media consumption and engagement.
What we do know is that smartphones and tablets in the form they are now are not going to be around forever. You only have to take a look at the recent history of communications devices to know that. Besides, the rules of capitalist consumerism would not allow it anyway.
What is a publisher to do to take full advantage of today’s platforms knowing that they could all very well change in the very near future?
First of all, sit down and take a very close look at who your customers currently are and who you want to reach with digital offerings. If you only have a printed product and website and know that you have a good number of customers in the 35-54 age groups, then it may be best to invest in a tablet app, since the “older” tablet users are the people most likely to be willing to pay for the app (and they are at an income level that advertisers adore). Also, if these people have older children at home, those children will see the tablet being used for news reading and might even want to try it out themselves.
On the other hand, if you are in an area where the majority of the population is in the 18-34 age groups, and are keen to reach these people because your print subscribers are dying out, then you would be better off investing in a smartphone app, or even better, in a range of different apps. Creating a “jack of all trades and master of none” app, that tries to satisfy all needs, might not be the right way to go. Unfortunately we as newspaper houses are used to the approach of “lets put everything in one product and sell it. People should then pick what they want”. The more sophisticated approach might be creating a range of apps that server specific interest or topics.
This also calls for taking a look at your brand. If your brand has a certain image and reputation that sticks with a particular (e.g. older) segment of customers, then it might be very difficult to reach younger people. They won’t believe you that you are innovative and hip. A new (younger) brand and different communication strategy may be needed to hook the smartphone generation.
Next, don’t go trying to invent the app wheel yourself. Instead, the wisest thing you could do as a publisher would be to team up with for example an interactive design school – preferably one in a university that also has a journalism school. If you have any chance to work with a telecommunications department or a future lab, seize it. If you are already actively promoting newspaper reading in the schools, take that up a step further. Get feedback from youngsters about their LIKES when it comes to news apps (and listen carefully to what they don’t like). Involve them in shaping the future of the news. Be the place young people need (and want) to be, when it comes to doing their work experience or qualifying projects. Stick to those sources. For then, as the years progress, you will no longer have to run after that train of technology…it will be coming to you.
And finally, make your organization “mobile ready”. Get finally rid of the print dictatorship when it comes to gathering, editing and publishing news in a strict one-deadline rhythm. Understand that you are now in an interactive communication business and not in a one-way content distribution business anymore.