Media24’s smartphone product development strategy is focused on the needs of its audience.

“It would be disingenuous of us to focus on devices,” says Sebastian Stent, the media company’s head of digital.

Instead, the company focuses on where its readers are and what devices they use, and then builds smartphone products that reposition its content for the type of reading that is done on a mobile device

“South Africa still has a relatively small smartphone audience, and very expensive data charges,” Stent says, “so much of our success at the moment lies in building highly efficient tools that take into account these challenges and in building tools to reach the broadest audience across the widest spectrum of devices.”

Media24’s overarching smartphone monetisation plan is fairly simple, Stent says: “We charge for good-quality digital content, however our audience chooses to find it. As long as it is local, original, and relevant, we will put a price to it — as all media companies have always done.

“This time, however, we offer the content over so many platforms that the key to making money from our audience is to make sure they get good value for money. Bundles of content allow us to do that, giving them the content they love across every device they use.”

The news media business has always been about the tension between advertising and sales to readers, Stent says. At present, readers seem a lot more willing to pay for these products than the advertisers.

He believes this really comes down to “sloppy digital agencies and media buyers who really struggle to understand how to treat digital platforms, and take the easy route — shifting spend to TV and radio — rather than going where the engaged audience is.”

This will change over the coming years, Stent believes. Nonetheless, right now advertisers, who were once ahead of the curve in all respects, are “languishing way behind it, with only a few pioneers really committed to our mobile audiences — and seeing great engagement because of it.”

Media24 has learned much from an audience-engagement perspective:

“Audience engagement on our smartphone devices is characterised by quick, bite-sized engagements with our content,” Stent says. “While their time on-app is limited — and averages less than two minutes per session — they spend this time well, navigating through a number of pages to get a broad picture of the news of the day.

“This differs sharply from our tablet audience, who spend considerably more time on their devices, using the tablet for a long read, often in excess of an hour a day, and reading many more pages than either our Web or mobile audiences.”

Stent describes mobile use as growing “remarkably fast,” saying that it has taken less than a year for smartphones to make up more than 50% of the digital audience for some of Media24’s titles.

“Our first indicator of this came from an unlikely source, YouTube, where we saw consumption shift around our videos,” he says. “Looking into it further, we discovered that in less than a year, our audience had shifted dramatically to their mobile devices to view our content.

“A year ago we saw about 6% of our audiences coming to us via a mobile device. This year that number had jumped to more than 30%. We therefore shifted our strategy around video to ensure that the videos we made work well for the mobile audience, and have seen the audience’s engagement grow accordingly.”

South Africa remains a fairly fledgling digital economy, so the products Media24 has launched during 2013 have been focused primarily on creating appropriate digital versions of print products, Stent says. The first targets were its Afrikaans-language dailies: Beeld, Die Burger, and Volksblad.

Stent believes these were ideal for a digital migration because paid applications targeting specific language groups are showing significant growth across the world. Meanwhile, free English-language news is so pervasive, it is often hard to encourage audiences to pay for news when they can get it everywhere else for free.

Each of Media24’s three Afrikaans titles has a smartphone app for both Android and iOS, blending the best of its print content with digital-specific news, including multi-media content and breaking news.

“Alongside our native apps, we have also built responsively designed Web sites,” Stent says. “These have cut down our development of multiple Web products, like separate mobile and Web sites, and they work wonderfully on a mobile device. 

Initially, Media24’s smartphone and tablet apps were focused on recreating the content in the print edition, Stent says. Because of the breaking news team, the company has had to change its strategy to “accommodate properly the different consumption patterns of our readers — with tablet readers preferring a long-form read, and smartphone readers looking for short-burst headlines and brief nuggets of relevant information. 

“All of our smartphone products have been well received by our audience,” Stent says. “And we have seen great growth in the number of downloads and subscriptions, particularly from our iOS-using readers.”

Yet Stent believes it is too early to define success from these products. Media24 can see that those who are engaging with these products are becoming loyal to them and spending a great deal of time on them, and that they “seem happy to pay for the privilege.” 

“This, for me, is a mark of modest success, and what we will be focusing on growing over the coming years,” Stent says.

Android payments have been an issue for some time in South Africa, which, for Media24, has meant monetising that Android audience has been significantly harder than getting its iOS audience to buy subscriptions to its products.

However, Stent believes that as the role of Android as an operating system grows domestically, “so too will those users who are willing to pay for news content in their home language.”

The focus in 2013 at Media24 has been on innovating digitally with core products, making sure the base platforms that allow its audience to digitally engage are soundly designed with all the functionality its loyal readers have come to expect from its titles.

“Once these are as rich as we would like them to be, we can move on,” Stent says. “Data visualisation and data journalism are both huge areas of interest for us, so it would make sense for these to be a future focus. There is a lot of work to do, however, to really optimise the current platforms and ensure that our readers can get the best long- and short-form journalism on our apps, wherever they are.”

Strategy can be narrowly focused on the smartphone, or it can more broadly encompass tablets as well. Media24’s smartphone strategy is part of a broader mobile strategy, which includes feature phones as well as tablets:

  • Feature phones: “Despite the global focus on smartphone adoption, there is still an enormous market in developing economies for feature phones, which pose unique challenges to developers,” Stent says. “Feature phones allow for a lot less functionality.

    And the huge number of limitations for digital users in South Africa — including data usage and bandwidth requirements — make developing for these audiences an exercise in minimalism and simple, structured communication.”

  • Tablets: “On the tablet side, our publications have found an engaged and loyal audience,” Stent says. “But the small scale of the domestic iPad audience means that we can’t yet rely on this to be the saviour of our news brands.

    “So the smartphone section of our market fills an important gap, catering for those on-the-go who need quick access to the local news of the day in their home language.”

Media24’s smartphone audience can be described as “mostly upwardly mobile young professionals with an interest in the world around them,” Stent says.

“While it is still a little tough to define exactly who they are, what we can determine from our rapidly growing social footprint is that many of them are young and female, an exciting indication that the same content from our print products is reaching a radically different audience when repackaged for our digital properties.”

Today, Media24’s smartphone audience, across all its titles, sits at about 35%. But Stent says this number is dramatically skewed by some of its titles.

For example, Daily Sun has the fastest growing mobile site in the stable, with the majority of its audience coming from feature phones. Other titles sit at in excess of 50% of their audience coming from a smartphone.

Media24’s oldest titles manage a much smaller mobile footprint, he says. But Stent expects this sector of the market will continue to grow over the coming year.

“I think that by this time next year, in some places, we will have seen as a dramatic a shift as we saw over the last year with our YouTube consumption patterns [earlier findings through YouTube that its audience had shifted a large portion of its viewing habits to mobile].”

In 2014, Media24 will be looking at next-generation smartphone monetisation opportunities, Stent says.

“We are exploring all options for monetisation of our content on smart devices. At present our focus is on testing new approaches on a small scale, with limited costs, and seeing from a modest base whether we can grow these successes into serious income generators.

“There is no point jumping feet first into something unless you are confident it can provide a viable return on your investment,” he adds. “So we try to be focused on avoiding big risk, but still innovating our products, then rolling out these innovations in a structured way so as not to scare off our loyal readers.”

Stent expects the demise of Blackberry will have a huge impact on the South African market, where it is still an enormously popular brand, and in his company’s strategic approach in the mobile space.

“As this phases out and consumers shift, we should see a much greater adoption of Android phones, and therefore greater adoption of our Android smartphone products,” Stent says. “In Africa, it is certain that Android’s market share will dwarf Apple’s. Apple has a poor footprint here and a history of limited focus on developing economies.

“The diversity of Android devices appeals more to the massively diverse audience in South Africa. Monetising Android continues to be a challenge, but we are taking some of the lessons we have learnt from monetising our feature phone audience and bringing these into our strategies for the connected audiences of tomorrow.”

When prioritising smartphone product development and evaluating opportunities, Stent says it’s important to not be too attached to any product or product strategy.

“Only so much can be pre-planned,” he says. “The success of a theoretical product in the market is a very different beast. So you have to be willing to adapt or change your plans at a moment’s notice and be constantly aware that what you think your audience wants and what they actually want (and use) are two totally different things.”

Stent believes that at this stage in the digital news industry, there really are no right answers.

“While there are many who think they know — and a lot of money being made by those who claim to have all the answers — the truth is that it is still an open playing field with very few absolute successes out there,” he says. “The key is to put infrastructure in place — in terms of dedicated digital staff, budget, and technology — so that you have the right resources to explore and experiment with new opportunities and potential revenue streams.”

With that strategy in place, he says, “When you find the right recipe, or new opportunities arise, you can capitalise on them as quickly and efficiently as possible.”

Regarding trends and changes in market behaviours and technology opportunities that guide Media24’s approach to the smartphone, Stent says the biggest trend shaping development for smartphones is the additional processing power of devices, as well as the ever-expanding tools and sensors on these devices.

Stent believes the biggest trend to come will be the tie-in between different smart devices — and that developing for this will be key to many of the successes in media in the coming years.

He also believes, however, that what is needed more than this is innovation in the ways news is produced and the types of news that are produced. These will best cater to the consumption patterns of today’s user, he says, adding, “It’s hard to even call them a reader any more, now that they have so much more than just words to engage with.”

Stent thinks the future “definitely is mobile,” but that the form it will take is still in a very formative stage.

“Today’s smartphones or tablets will be made redundant by some new innovation tomorrow,” he says. “It is important to provide the right tools for the audience now, and then build these so that they can be adapted or developed for whatever technological innovation comes next.”

When discussing the outlook for mobile Web and mobile apps for smartphones as a source of revenue, Stent doesn’t think these different platforms should be too far divided.

“This is why we focus on bundled apps and content,” he says. “The real success comes not from monetising a smartphone, but from the smartphone forming just one touchpoint in our reader’s day. And it is this full-day engagement that we are able to monetise — both now and long into the future.”

When looking at the short-term future, Stent believes the big opportunities lie in advanced use of smartphone sensors and tools to enrich applications.

“Everyone thinks that you can only use accelerometers and motion sensors and cameras for gaming,” he says. “But it is important that app developers start using these tools for ordinary readers to improve their experience and change the way they interact with content.

“Possibly the biggest area where disruptive change is happening is in television. Developing for smart televisions is really something that should be growing in all news media companies. There is no better time than now for ‘old’ newspaper companies to reposition the work of their newsrooms to take on the behemoths of television news.” 

This is one of 17 case studies featured in the recent INMA strategic report “The Smartphone Choices for Media Companies.” For more information on this report, free to INMA members, click here