3 reasons to adopt a 'mobile first' strategy

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When Quartz, Atlantic Media’s new business brand, debuts on Monday, it will be “mobile-first and tablet-focused.” It’s a model that may represent the future of publishing.

Quartz editor in chief Kevin Delaney told The Economist recently that the Quartz wireframe is designed for the tablet. “We’re reversing what publishers have traditionally done,” he said. Using HTML5 and responsive design, Quartz will feature not only tablet-friendly content and design, but innovative ad units as well. “On the commercial front, we're looking to disrupt through nonstandard ad units and customization of ad creative to the mobile platform by our own developers,” Atlantic Media President Justin Smith told BtoB.

Is mobile first the wave of the future? It’s almost a no-brainer for new brands to adopt a mobile-first approach, since they have no legacy (print or web) platform or processes to worry about. Established magazine brands face a higher hurdle, since a mobile-first strategy requires them to rebuild existing designs, workflows and products to better serve their increasingly mobile audience.

Forbes Chief Product Officer Lewis D’Vorkin said he “fixates” on mobile, and with good reason: The share of mobile traffic to Forbes’ website has increased from 10% to 25% in just 10 months, and “there’s no question that our mobile traffic will continue to rise,” D’Vorkin said.

Expected enhancements in what D’Vorkin calls Phase Two of the company’s mobile strategy include a new photo gallery solution that is optimized for mobile, new designs designed to drive more clilcks – a big challenge on a 3- or 4-inch smartphone screen – and new monetization opportunities.

Other traditional media players are following suit. USA Today’s redesign, which debuted last week, was clearly created with a tablet experience in mind. The new design features “a layout that may make visitors attempt to swipe at their desktop screens,” AdAge’s Jason Del Rey wrote.

  

What’s driving this admitted fixation on tablets and smartphones? Three main trends are pushing mobile publishing toward a tipping point.

Content consumption habits are changing

Smartphones and tablets are taking over more of the tasks that consumers used to perform on desktops, laptops and other consumer electronics devices. Pew Internet’s ongoing research on smartphones found that 55% of adult mobile phone owners go on the Web using their phones, and 17% of cell phone owners do most of their online browsing on the phone. Some say their mobile phone is their only option for online access.

A new report from IDG Global Solutions (pdf) found that 77 percent of survey respondents have a smartphone for business or personal use. More than half said they have replaced other devices – clocks, personal organizers, portable music players – with the functionality found in their smartphone or tablet.

Consumers are also spending more time with content on their mobile devices. A study by Millennial Media and comScore found that mobile access to entertainment content, including music, movies, TV shows and e-books, increased 82 percent over the past year.

Atlantic Media says Quartz’s mobile-first mission reflects its target audience: a new class of digitally savvy, “ultra-mobile” business executives. “One of the defining attributes of these global leaders is that they are incredibly mobile,” Delaney told The Economist. “So the decision to design a news site for mobile as the primary platform really maps to usage patterns.”

Devices are proliferating

The hockey stick growth of smartphones and tablets continues. Pew found that 45% of American adults and two-thirds of young adults (18-29) now own a smartphone. Market researcher IHS iSuppli forecasts a 56% increase in tablet shipmentsthis year.

The tablet market continues to diversify as manufacturers try to chip away at the iPad’s dominance. Tablets with 9-inch displays will make up approximately 59 percent of all shipments this year, but the big growth will come from 7-inch tablets. Likely anticipating a bump from the rumored iPad “mini,” HIS iSuppli predicts shipments of 7-inch tablets will nearly double to 41 million units in 2012 from 21 million units last year. These smaller displays – including Samsung’s Galaxy Tab, Amazon’s Kindle Fire and Barnes & Noble’s Nook, will control 32 percent of the tablet market, up from 26 percent in 2011.

Also elbowing their way into the crowd will be a new round of tablets running Microsoft’s Windows 8 operating system, which the software giant is expected to formally launch on Oct. 25in New York. Microsoft’s own Windows 8-based Surface tablets, expected to be commercially available the next day, will sport a 10.6-inch screen, making the Surface one of the larger tablets on the market.

The evolution of smartphones is also opening up intriguing possibilities for content creators. The iPhone 5, Apple’s latest smartphone, will go on sale this Friday. For publishers, the big news is that Apple has increased the iPhone’s screen to 4 inches from its original 3.5 inches, with a 16:9 Retina display and a 1136x640 resolution. The larger screen size means publishers will need to update their apps to take full advantage of the extra screen real estate.

Apple said on Monday that it took in more than 2 million iPhone 5 pre-orders in the first 24 hours, doubling the number of pre-orders it received for the iPhone 4s.

Tools are evolving

Software and platforms for publishing and monetizing content on mobile devices are evolving quickly, lowering the boundaries to creating a quality mobile experience:

  • Adobe announced on Wednesday that it was adding the Single Edition version of Digital Publishing Suite to its Adobe Creative Cloud platform. DPS Single Edition, targeted at freelance designers, small design firms and other small businesses, makes it easier to create single-issue digital publications – annual reports, brochures and the like – and submit them for publishing through the Apple App Store. In May, Adobe added new technology for Digital Publishing Suite that lets publishers tailor content for the iPhone. The New Yorker was the first publication to launch an iPhone app built with the technology.
  • Perfect Market has added support for responsive design to its content optimization platform as a “natural outgrowth” of its adaptive publishing strategy, Jay Budzik, Perfect Market’s chief technology officer, said in a statement. Perfect Market announced last week that one of its customers, the Chicago Tribune, had seen “significant improvements” for mobile users on its responsively designed search pages and “sizable increases” in visits to those pages.
  • Onswipe recently added iPhone and Kindle Fire support to its 15-month-old iPad publishing platform, which enables publishers to create “touch-optimized” experiences for mobile web visitors. Onswipe says one customer, CycleWorld, saw pages per visit from mobile users increase 341 percent, from 2.6 pages in May to 8.8 pages in July, while time on site increased from 2-plus minutes to more than 7 minutes over the same period.

These types of tools are giving publishers increasingly sophisticated options for optimizing their digital content for mobile devices. As these tools continue to evolve, they could convince more content creators to lead with mobile.

One big caveat

Keep in mind that “mobile first” does not mean “mobile only.” Tablet-only publications are hard-pressed to compete amidst the sea of established magazine titles – not to mention the swarm of games, utilities and other apps filling up the Apple, Android and other app stores.  

Nomad Editions, founded in 2010 by former Newsweek CEO Mark Edmiston, hoped to build a subscription-based business around niche, tablet-only publications, but the magazines never gained significant traction in Apple’s App Store. Nomad announced last week it is closing its three remaining consumer titles and will focus on custom publishing.

Other higher-profile tablet-only publications continue to search for relevance. News Corp.’s The Daily laid off one-third of its staff in July, and despite more than 100,000 paying subscribers (how much more is unclear, since that figure is from February), the publication continues to lose money. Huffington Post’s more recent entry, Huffington, dropped its paid subscription plan after just five issues and now offers the app for free.

The problem with these apps is they were designed as walled gardens. And that’s not how mobile users have shown they want to consume content, particularly news content. A mobile-first strategy, just like digital-first and print-first before it, requires multiple options for delivering content wherever and whenever users wish to view it. 

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