Mobile is the next great hope for news companies. But the industry will need to be flexible, rigorous in its audience engagement, and offer more creative advertising executions if it is to monetise the platform enough to support quality journalism.

At the recent INMA World Congress in New York, media executives heard they should change their company cultures and their own thinking — and upgrade the quality of their content — or mobile would not save them.

“Our research shows more people will consume the typical news publisher’s digital content via mobile by 2015 with a dramatic uptick through to the end of the decade, as three billion new people connect to the Internet via smart phone devices,” said INMA Chief Executive Officer Earl Wilkinson. “But for digital news to connect to digital consumers, content must be of higher relevance than is being produced today.”

Mark Challinor, director of mobile at the Telegraph Media Group in London and one of the industry’s experts on the brave new world of mobile media, said the real opportunity is not that mobile is “the next big thing,” but that it pulls all the disparate elements of publishing together, amplifying demand even further.

Speaker after speaker, including Huffington Post President and Chief Executive Officer Arianna Huffington, the principal analyst at Forrester Research James McQuivey, and Chief Product Officer at Forbes Media Lewis D’Vorkin, instructed executives that if mobile is going to save journalism, they must stop behaving like mountains and embrace the cloud. 

“Stop seeing yourself as a publishing platform, and be a curated network,” D’Vorkin told us.

The strength in mobile is not that it gives consumers a new news site to go to, but that they can remain connected to things they care about and that interest them wherever they are.

“Our future survival and the ultimate prosperity of the industry rests on how we embrace mobile platforms as an integral part of the mix we offer,” Challinor said. “In this new age of information overload, print still has the power to cut through the clutter. But the new world of media is revolutionising the old by offering a new level of transparency, responsiveness, and efficiency. Together, it is all powerful.”

Audience data

Challinor spoke with the flush of success of a publisher who believes he has cracked the code. 

During the London Olympics, the Web site, owned by Telegraph Media Group, topped 50 million unique browsers a month — the biggest online boost in its history. The company sold an extra 300,000 print copies of the newspaper during the games, and its iPad audience grew 94%, while mobile views jumped 27%.

The most interesting insights however came from examining the behaviour or the Telegraph’s audience: 44 % of the audience during the Olympics used more than one platform to connect to its content. Mobile and print access peaked between 7-9 a.m., the Web spiked at lunchtime, and iPad activity was most prevalent in the evening.

The audience demographics were also telling. The average age of a weekday print reader is 61, 50 for an iPad reader, 44 for the Web site, and 35 for smartphone readers.

“That gives us extraordinary insights into what to do with our content,” Challinor said. “This is about audience connection, not just broadcast. You can't just publish everything everywhere and think that will do. It needs to be tailored and targeted both for the device and the audience.”

Challinor told those of us attending the conference that “where the eyeballs go, that's where the money goes, too.” But to succeed publishers, need a strategy and must “not dabble in the space.”

To attract that money, however, publishers will need to smarten up their thinking. 

Augmented reality, “m-commerce,” and other advertising opportunities

Too many media companies are translating ineffective and unattractive online advertising concepts across to mobile platforms, said Paolo Mira, the chief executive of PHD Mobi, which has developed small screen strategies and sites for companies including Disney, eBay, CocaCola, Microsoft and MasterCard, and media brands including The New York Times, Metro, NBC, Bloomberg, and MTV.

"What advertisers want is quality reach over pure reach, content with higher engagement, measurement, substantial purchase intent, and solutions that are real-time, personalised, and maybe social,” Mira said.

New advertising deliveries include expandable ads, ads that connect to the app store to encourage downloads (not just links to corporate Web sites), quizzes where users answer a series of questions to qualify them for competitions in return for data about themselves, gaming ads, and executions that help readers solve problems created by news events (e.g., when the government makes anew tax announcement; you can find out how much you will pay as an execution for a financial planner or mortgage provider). 

“Small screen is becoming the large screen in terms of usage,” Mira said. “It means your thinking therefore should be big.”

QR (quick response), AR (augmented reality), and IR (image recognition) technology also offer enormous opportunity to publishers, although many have been burned by early forays and are now reluctant to see new potential.

“AR is still new and whether it’s long term, we shall see,” Challinor said. “But it is the one thing ad agencies want to talk about and learn more of when I am out running my Telegraph mobile road shows."

The Telegraph UK now builds AR campaigns from its desktop via a Web log-in and packages it up as part of a multi-media campaign to clients, offering another engaging route to market and another revenue stream for publishers.

A recent study by Juniper Research found that US$300 million in revenue globally has been generated by AR in 2013, with 1.4 billion AR apps expected to be downloaded to tablets and smart phones by 2015, and growing to 2.5 billion by 2017.

And QR-styled codes, although regarded broadly as a “transitional technology,” helped U.S. President Barack Obama raise millions of dollars in campaign revenue from supporters leading up to the 2012 election.

The report, however, also highlights that one of the biggest barriers to greater uptake is the lack of understanding by consumers about what to do with transitional technology to make it work. Juniper said publishers could play a significant role in increasing awareness to underpin the success of the technology.

Embracing such creativity would also allow publishers to charge a premium for executions and not be restricted to click-through and traffic revenue models, Mira said. The growth of mobile payment technology could be a third wave of revenue, but publishers will need to prove their credentials first.

Otto Sjoberg, president of Media Revolution in Sweden, told conference attendees that mobile payments for items such as scannable tickets for concerts and travel totalled US$240 billion in 2011, a number that is expected to jump to a whopping US$670 billion by 2015.

In this space, PayPal alone, owned by eBay, has grown the value of its transactions from US$25 million in 2008 to US$14 billion last year. 

“E-commerce is becoming m-commerce,” Sjoberg said. “The mobile phone is becoming your wallet, and that is going to fundamentally change advertising.”

Publishers that could prove to advertisers that they could “get into people’s mobile wallet” would have a huge advantage, Sjoberg said: “It is going to change the traditional advertising model because it moves us from one to many to one to one, and it will be the convergence of advertising and the shopping mall.”

Mobile lessons learned

In the meantime, however, it’s one step at a time for news publishers with mobile, although the evidence is now coming through that those early steps have huge promise.

The Financial Times, for example, launched its mobile app in June 2011 and has since had more than 3.8 million users. The news media company was the first to have digital subscriptions overtake print circulation with 316,000 digital subscribers compared to 286,000 print copies.

FT now publishes using HTML5 to avoid the need to use iTunes, and as a result is enjoying much higher profitability on each download.

Megan Considine, managing director of consumer marketing/digital products for The New York Times, admitted that the mobile space is still untamed: “The biggest thing I wish I had known before we started is how premature the space is,” she said.

“While that seems obvious now, at the time we started we were working with so many people that claimed to be experts. It is still changing all the time, so the need to be flexible and understanding that it is not mature yet and no one is really an expert has been key."

The New York Times offers six different apps for iPhone, covering not just general news, but real estate, a guide to New York City, crosswords, learning English, and Sudoku. The offer is extended with news apps across Android, Blackberry, Windows8, and a luxury app covering fashion and design for iPad.

The company now has 708,000 digital-only accounts, up 45% from a year ago when they were first introduced. Circulation revenue for The New York Times grew by 7% in the first quarter of 2013, rising to $US241.8 million from US$227 million previously, due mainly to digital subscriptions. Much of that is attributed to mobile.

“We have definitely learned new things every day. That's why we are all enjoying it so much,” Considine said.

Having a mindset that enjoys being surprised, is inspired by new possibilities, and is prepared to change traditional work practices to accommodate and maximise the opportunities are essential ingredients to success.