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A Tale of Two Mobile Strategies

Posted by Adam Kleinberg on September 23rd, 2011 at 8:58 am

Two newspaper publications have recently evolved their mobile strategies. One is an example of what not to do. The other represents an evolution in the thinking around mobile and a case study model for a thoughtful and effective mobile strategy for a content publication.

Let's take a look at the San Francisco Chronicle and the Financial Times.

San Francisco Chronicle gets an iPad app.

Let's take a look at the San Francisco Chronicle. About a year ago, I heard Phil Bronstein being interviewed on the radio lamenting about how newspapers screwed up a decade ago by making the choice to give the content away for free.

So, it's clear where his head is at.

I am still a subscriber to the Sunday Chron. I like reading the paper over coffee Sunday morning. I like doing the Monster Sudoku puzzle in pen. I like passing the local section back and forth with my wife and chatting about Willie Brown's column. I like reading my buddy Al Saracevic's sports column.

What's more, my wife tunes into SFGate (the online version of the Chron) every day. She even keeps it as her launch screen on her browser.

So I was intrigued when I went to SFGate.com on my iPad this weekend and a full screen ad popped up directing me to the new San Francisco Chronicle iPad App.

As a subscriber, I can get the app for free—and get some exclusive content with it. Great.

However, if I'm not a subscriber it costs $59.99 a year. I could also do $6/month.

Or I could read SFGate.com for free.

Hmm. Which would I choose? Unfortunately for Phil, I, like most Americans, am a cheapskate. I'm accustomed to paying $2 for an app, not $60. So, I'd stick with SFGate.

And all that exclusive, rich, juicy, yummy content? Well, not only won't I get to see it, neither will Google.

The Financial Times gets a web app.

This weekend, I saw an add for the new Financial Times "web app" at at app.ft.com in Fast Company (not only do I still read newspapers, I still read magazines) and had to check it out.

While the world is going zig, FT is going zag.

Like the Chronicle, it provides a great, rich experience. Like the Chronicle, it provides special content for paying subscribers. Unlike the Chronicle, it does so using HTML5 in a browser.

The Chronicle—like most in the industry—is investing in a walled garden. But, apps cannot be accessed when people search for content on the web. Or click on a link shared in an email.

FT has already gone down this path. They were one of the very early iPad apps available in the App Store. I actually downloaded it specifically because it was one of the only news apps available at the time. By being a first mover, they gained a competitive advantage and I read a newspaper I had never read before.

But I, like your average mobile device user, only access a maximum of about 10-15 apps on my device on a regular basis. Once you take away Safari, Mail, Address Book, Calendar, Google Maps, Twitter and Facebook, there's not too many available chances for FT to become a habit.

Today, FT has gained a competitive advantage again. By dropping their mobileapp for a web app for mobile, they have set a course that I think many publications will eventually follow.

Why?

First, their user sacrifices almost nothing. With HTML 5, they are able to create a very robust, intuitive and sleek interface right in the browser. The experience for the user is great.

Second, their content is discoverable. A small part of content is discovered by audiences browsing publications websites. Obviously, sharing is important, but the lion's share is through Google. In a mobile app, however, there is no such thing as SEO. Content is just not discoverable from a search engine. FT makes this a non-issue by creating an app that looks like a website.

Third, they smartly use responsive versioning for specific devices. The app.ft.com url only works on your iPad and iPhone right now. Because it is just set for two fixed screen resolutions, they are able to maintain control over the user experience while delivering the efficiencies enabled by media queries. In my last post, I initiated a debate about the efficacy of responsive design. This is an example of responsive design done right.

Fourth, they are not beholden to anyone.. FT does not need to get approval from the Apple Store. Or any other store. They can do whatever the hell they want to do with their app and publish it in real time. If they want to change things, they change them—no waiting for people to download an update.

Finally, they use HTML5 capabilities to market toward engagement by instructing the user how to add the app to their home screen. That's such a simple thing, but will prove to be very effective for making the web app as readily accessible for the browsing audience as the mobile app is currently. That means the FT web app can have an icon on your iPad or iPhone home screen just like a regular app.

(Actually, any page can. I recommend you try it out right now with the Traction Blog using the same instructions provided by FT in the image below.)

It's the experience that matters.

I predict the Financial Times will be successful and the Chronicle will not. Here's why:

The Chronicle is trying to solve a revenue problem with their mobile strategy. They have been losing income because people don't buy newspapers as much anymore. When digital came along they (along with every other local paper) lost the natural geographic exclusivity they had so long enjoyed in San Francisco. The web made geography irrelevant so people had the option to turn elsewhere for news.

The Chronicle could have done some soul searching and looked for what they truly stood for and how that might have broader appeal to an audience beyond the Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate. They could have reconstructed their brand to be a national or global content powerhouse.

But they didn't, so now they are throwing a Hail Mary pass to try to rectify the situation. Hail Mary passes aren't a good strategy for winning football games.

On the other hand, The Financial Times is trying to solve a customer problem with their mobile strategy. By being innovators, they have learned about what actually does and does not work. They have been thoughtful about breaking down barriers between their customers and their content. They have been focused on the user need, not the business need. Ultimately, this is why they will win.

At the end of the day, it is the experience that matters. Developing a browser-based app like the Financial Times has done does the most to optimize that experience—not just in a "swish, whiz, look at that fancy menu" kind of way, but in a holistic, intelligent "how does this fit into my customer's life" kind of way.

Which way are you going to go?

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