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5 tips for news writing with mobile eyes in mind

13 August 2014 · by Peter Marsh

The way readers consume news has changed. Media companies must change the way they write and deliver content to address this new trend.

Image of a man holding an iPhone and an iPad.In 2010, the Financial Times had no mobile audience. Four years later, more than 60% of FT readers access its content via mobile devices.

Today in France, smartphones account for more than 40% of Le Monde’s readers, with 1.9 million monthly visitors using the newspaper’s mobile app.

And, in a recent survey of U.S. consumers conducted by the Associated Press and the American Press Institute, 78% say they used their smartphones to get news during the past week.

Some people, especially those in the 18-34 age group, prefer mobile devices as their exclusive source for news content. These mobile-only audiences tend to fall into two camps:

  • Busy on-the-go news readers who want something to look at while standing in line or sitting at a coffee shop.

  • In-depth news readers who check their smartphones several times a day looking for new or engaging content to delve into.

Media companies around the world are discovering that mobile audiences consume news differently than desktop and print readers. Effective engagement with mobile readers requires a writing style that is appropriate for the smaller screens and larger distractions that characterise today’s in-motion lifestyle. So, with these hurried, harried, and often upperwardly mobile users in mind, here are some tips on writing news content for this cherished audience segment.

Good writing is good writing. Period.

As an old software guy, I like to say that writing for mobile is akin to programming in the days of severely limited memory and available disk space. The focus must be on tight editing and efficiency. There’s no space to waste.

With this basic premise in mind, here are five mobile writing rules to consider:

  1. Provide maximum information with minimum words.

    Make every word count. Cut out the fluff and get to the point. Use short, tight sentences, and remove every superfluous word.

  2. Create attention-grabbing titles.

    As noted above, mobile audiences are mainly on-the-go audiences. You only have a second or two to catch their interest on these little screens. So, your headlines should be as tight and efficient as your text.

    Keep your titles brief, relevant, and descriptive. Avoid jargon. And, aim for a length of 65-70 characters max to avoid truncation.

    At the same time, be sensitive to your in-depth mobile news readers, who don’t want to be baited into clicking on a headline that’s misleading or irrelevant.

  3. Focus on strong introductions and compelling summaries.

    Mobile audiences have no time for introductions that dance around a topic. So, just get to it.

    Don’t worry about “setting the stage” in your introduction. You’ve created an attention-grabbing title, now craft a punchy and engaging summary that compels the reader forward.

  4. Use the medium to benefit your message.

    Some mobile devices – especially newer smartphones and tablets – are optimised for images. Take advantage of these visual capabilities by using graphics and images to complement your writing.

    One recent study on Twitter found that tweets with visuals received more than 150 more retweets than those without visuals. Similarly, posts on StumbleUpon that included visuals got dramatically more shares than text-only posts.

  5. Lists and links are the lifelines of an effective mobile story.

    Mobile readers love lists. Ordered or unordered lists; it doesn’t matter. Lists are succinct and easy to read.

    They clearly show the reader where one point ends and another begins. This makes lists ideal for scanning or browsing.

    Many people scan before they read anyway, and this is especially true among mobile users, who quickly try to determine whether it’s worth reading the entire article.

    Recent surveys have also shown that mobile users are inherently suspicious readers. They will question an author’s credibility if any embedded links do not relate to the topic. So, make sure that any and all links are highly relevant, and that they actually work.

When it comes to news consumption, we’ve crossed a significant threshold. People now spend more media time each day with their mobile devices than with their desktops, laptops, or printed newspapers.

Like the medium itself, mobile audiences are on the move and the direction is curving steadily upward. By writing and editing with the mobile platform in mind, media companies will continue to stay ahead of this curve. 

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