The year is 1920 and a group of reporters at a small, virtually unknown Detroit radio station are about to make history. They’re about to conduct the world’s first ever newscast – reporting live results from the primary elections. As the station would later describe, the event would turn out to be prophetic, a sign of times to come:
In the four hours that the apparatus, set up in an out-of-the-way corner of The News Building, was hissing and whirring its message into space, few realized that a dream and a prediction had come true. The news of the world was being given forth through this invisible trumpet to the waiting crowds in the unseen market place.
I just love that quote. The language, aside from being so rich and evocative, has the tone of great importance, assured of the radio’s crucial role to come in mass communication. But it would take over thirty years for radio to realize that dream. Until then, it went through a series of twists and turns.
Mobile today is a lot like radio in the 1920s. There’s a general, optimistic feeling it possesses the keys to the future of communication and content discovery, of broadcasting, of publishing, of information. But the training wheels have only just come off, and mobile is still very young. What is mobile’s character? What will it look like in 30 years?
To understand exactly where mobile has come, and where it’s headed, it’s helpful to first take a step back to see how an older medium, radio, grew into its current role. It’s a story many in the tech industry have heard about already – a common anecdote to describe how mass media slowly shapes itself to catch up with changing technology and societies, and vice versa. But it’s worth a revisit.
How Radio Got its Voice
During the early years of news radio, nothing could have been further from revolutionary. Reporters simply read from newspapers, unaware of the magnificent potential the new medium would have to transmit instant, timely news better than print ever could. In fact it got so bad, with reporters ripping headlines from the papers, the papers had to implement a blackout on radio stations from reading their stuff on air. The ban only lasted two years.
It wasn’t until World War Two radio truly came into its own. As public thirst for immediate information grew, radio delivered the fix with on-scene reportages, interviews and the sharp, easy-to-digest syntax of the modern newscast we are all so familiar with today.
By the 1950s, radio was no longer a new medium ripping pages (literally) from the old. It was a vibrant, instant way to capture the world’s attention and feed it information. The prophecy in that quote from the ‘20’s had come true. Radio was its own force with its own characteristics and style.
So what does this have to do with mobile?
The history of radio news sheds light on the current evolution we’re seeing right now with mobile’s (gradual) upheaval of the online reading experience. Just like radio, in the early years of mobile content publishing, old habits were adopted from older media, and continue to be relied on to this day.
The early days of mobile (including today)
Much like radio, mobile content’s early days are defined by the characteristics of older media. With the explosion of the iPhone and iPad between 2009 and 2011, the App Store was the first place publishers and brands looked to snag the attention of a newly important, massive mobile audience. One way of getting their content to those eyeballs quickly was by re-purposing PDFs and calling them “apps.” Magazines, businesses, newspapers all did it: packaging up their PDF’s into an app, perhaps adding some slightly intriguing bells and whistles (html links, video pop ups, even a fake page flip animation) and that was that.
Around this time, we also saw the rise of the first mobile sites. Mobile sites became increasingly important as the battle between web and native apps started to reveal that most people prefer getting content from the web and not closed apps. But mobile sites, in the early days, were not so much borrowed from the old. They simply fell short of mobile’s potential to tell a compelling story. They reduced the content experience to a bunch of single line summaries, very little visual information and an overall ugly, slow and difficult reading experience.
Finally came a great and clever solution, responsive design, which is probably one of the most discussed mobile strategies circulating publisher boardrooms and marketing departments today. The issue again is that responsive design is simply a reshuffling of the old, in this case the desktop web, into the new.
Responsive design makes it easy to fit all your content from the web onto smaller screens, and to do so with a simple, build-it-once approach. But it doesn’t bring out the true character of reading on smartphones and tablets. It relies on navigation built for the click and scroll world (back buttons, very little swipe), it relies on constantly reloading pages, which is a bigger problem on small devices with less speed, and it doesn’t provide new, immersive advertising and engagement models that give mobile its potential to not only change the way we read, but change the way publishers and content producers grow their business.
Mobile coming into its own
In the past few years, we’ve made tremendous leaps in defining exactly what mobile can be; we’ve had our 1920’s radio moment.
The most successful, trail-blazing apps for reading content on tablets and smartphones are the aggregators, that take your content from a feed, and from social networks, organize it in a relevant way (curated content) and then serve it up to you in the very best mobile experience possible. Think of Flipboard, of Zite, or Pulse. These addictive mobile experiences are all about swipe, full screen, clean layouts, and immersion – they let you keep flipping, and discovering more and more content.
We know from Pressly data this kind of experience is not just pretty – it is much more effective. Users will spend far more time with content on small devices if they can swipe around, rather than the hunt and peck of old mobilized or desktop sites.
We’ve also witnessed another major transformation of the mobile medium; the rich web experience. With FT leading the way in 2011 as the first major publisher to deliver a native-like experience directly from the web, many saw this move as a way to shirk Apple’s hefty 30% revenue cut. But it was so much more than that. FT saw the web was the future of content distribution, not app stores. So it built an HTML5 powered app and it proved you could offer the same rich experience exalted in the app stores, directly from the browser. The years that have passed and FT’s bold move has proven to be ahead of the curve. Publishers are now moving en masse to find mobile web solution, where they know their audience is growing, and the luster of the app store is dimming.
Further, publishers have found better ways to engage their audience, and finally unlock the potential of mobile to provide a new monetization strategy. With full screen and swipe, comes the opportunity to insert full-screen ads. No longer do publishers rely on clutter, such as banners, but they can add a rich experience, while you surf content. These ads don’t interrupt from the aesthetics of mobile reading, while giving the reader potentially something enjoyable and entertaining on its own (often the full screen ads are beautiful and highly engaging, with video, animations and so on).
This new method of advertising also gives content marketers a model to improve their conversion on their content marketing properties. Instead of ads, they insert call to action screens in between articles: download this ebook, sign up for our newsletter, request information, and other forms of lead generation.
The next few years for mobile
What is effective on mobile is finally starting to become clear. Now what’s left is for mass adoption and the sharpening of the tools we already have. We know the web will be the hotbed of content distribution, we know it makes life easier for readers if all your content is a single Mobile Google search away. We know that works for publishers and marketers too. Yet a majority of publications still do not have an adequate modern mobile reading experience, one that takes advantage of all the strengths offered by the touch screen device.
We’ve also yet to uncover all the characteristics that will truly define mobile as its own force of nature. Remember, reading on these devices is so much more than just smaller screens. It’s an entirely different context: you are on the bus, in bed at home, walking in a park. How will publishers shape mobile to be more effective in these local contexts? This is certainly early days, but it seems like a natural progression for the medium.
We’ll also take strides in eliminating the jarring chasm between desktop and mobile reading. Responsive design is a step towards this, but so far, most mobile reading lives on a separate island, meanwhile desktop reading stays mostly unchanged. As mobile continues its evolution, we will see cleaner, tighter integration between small screens and big, and much more play between them. This might simply be Flipboard reading from the laptop, but it might also be “second screen” experiences, where the mobile device grows as the enhancer of non-mobile content, rather than the alternative.
The next step for publishers and marketers in mobile
Just as radio had its moment in the 1920s, the glimpse of hope for what the medium would hold, we’ve already had ours with mobile. Mobile is perennially a top priority in editorial boardrooms and marketing war rooms across the world. It’s clearly the key. In the last few years we’ve uncovered some fragments of what works on mobile. Swipe. Web. Full screen. Curation. Mobile is getting its voice.
And now, we are entering the golden age of mobile reading, this is the turning point, a time that will define mobile’s personality as a mass communications platform. The technological and social uses of mobile in will continue to evolve.
Marketers and publisher play a crucial role in shaping and adopting this future, or risk being left behind, reading those headlines over the airwaves.
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