How to make money on mobile” — sounds like a great session for a publishers’ conference, doesn’t it? It’s a big topic for local media businesses these days, as Web traffic surpasses desktop traffic for more and more newspapers, magazines, and broadcast stations.

That’s why I spent an afternoon searching the Web recently. I was looking for a speaker who could nail this topic for an upcoming conference of a major U.S. newspaper association.

After a couple of hours, I gave up.

I had no problem finding people who were opining on what publishers should do on mobile. The supply seemed unlimited. But all of them were talking about how to get their own content read or consumed (video) on mobile.

As for making money, the only idea anyone seemed to have was banner ads.

Banner ads on mobile. Yuck.

Not that we shouldn’t try to get our content consumed on mobile. We absolutely should.

And not that we shouldn’t sell banner ads on mobile. We should.

But the money to be made there is minuscule. It will definitely grow a lot in the coming years — and even then, it will still be minuscule.

OK, then, where can local media find a real revenue opportunity in mobile?

There is one. But it’s not about our content on mobile.

It’s about our advertisers’ presence on mobile. And our non-advertisers, too — the large majority of businesses in our markets that don’t use traditional media to reach customers.

Because what is mobile, really? It’s how consumers find stuff they want to buy, things they want to do, and answers to questions that arise on the spot and in the moment.

Mobile isn’t a channel. It isn’t really a device. It’s a series of circumstances in which people try to find the next thing they want or need.

Where is a hardware store near me? What’s the highest-rated restaurant nearby? What are the hours at the dry cleaners?

Local businesses desperately need to be found in those mobile moments, when consumers are looking for the things they sell or the services they provide.

The searches that used to be done in the yellow pages, or on the desktop, or even by asking friends, are being done more and more on mobile devices, right at the time of need.

Whatever the business is, there are a limited number of opportunities in any given day, week, or year when someone in the local market looks for what they do. More and more of those opportunities are happening on mobile devices.

If a business can’t be found on mobile, isn’t mobile-friendly when found, or doesn’t make its case powerfully on mobile, those opportunities are going to their competition.

That’s where we, as local media people, come in. We need to remind ourselves that we have always made most of our money by helping local retailers and services get found and win the business.

Helping them get found and win the business on mobile is our biggest revenue opportunity in this new space.

Our content isn’t a big factor in this. On mobile, people trying to find a restaurant or a vacuum cleaner belt don’t start out by reading a news story.

They start out by doing a search. So, for local businesses, mobile resembles the yellow pages more than it does newspapers, magazines, radio or television. And, as in the yellow pages, the end of the search is a piece of content presented by the business itself.

The consumer does a search, touches a link, and BANG! — she’s on the Web site of a business she may choose to patronise.

That’s why our money-making opportunity in mobile is not about our content — it’s about helping local businesses make their content powerful. When found, businesses need to present better content, more content, more engaging content than ever before.

We’re in a new era of direct contact between consumers and businesses, without the aid of a media intermediary. But this doesn’t mean we’re not needed.

It means we’re need for different things. Most businesses have little knowledge or capacity to do what’s required to win on mobile. They need help.

Our services for mobile must include:

  • Web site design that looks and works great on mobile.

  • Search-engine optimisation that makes the Web site pop in mobile searches.

  • Facts on the site that provide exactly what the consumer needs in a mobile moment, like hours, address, phone, map, etc.

  • Content that closes the deal — engagingly produced text, images, and video that show why the business is a great choice.

  • For larger businesses, paid search and maybe programmatic banner advertising on frequently used mobile sites (like Facebook) to drive up site traffic.

We can also provide ancillary services, like promotions (in-store events, contests, games, puzzles, surveys) and marketing (e-mail campaigns, social media management, search profile management).

Not coincidentally, this list does not include selling banners on our own mobile-friendly sites. We can do that, too, but it’s secondary or even tertiary. The real action for local businesses is in how their own media are presented in and after searches, not in little ads on mobile news pages.

This opportunity is huge. Just about every business in our markets needs help to create a powerful presence in mobile — not just those who currently advertise with us.

If we take off the blinders of our old model — ads alongside our own content — we can see the big opportunity on the little device in every consumer’s hand.