‘Facebook is the best app for news’: Publishers are still way behind in mobile

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The shift from the desktop era to mobile is perhaps as great as the one from offline to the Internet, many believe. And still, after many publishers were caught flat-footed by the Internet, history has repeated itself in slow motion with the shift to mobile.

Even though more than half of traffic is now coming from mobile devices, there’s no shortage of dire pronouncements on the state of publishers’ mobile efforts. An inexact bill of particulars: 1. Most publisher mobile experiences are horrific; 2. Publishers can make only a fraction of money off mobile visitors as they do on desktop; 3. Mobile pages are so slow to load that Facebook and other platforms now have a pretext to host the content directly; and 4. Publishers have woefully under-invested when it comes to mobile.

It’s the last point that NBC-owned Breaking News co-founder and general manager Cory Bergman emphasizes in this week’s Digiday Podcast. Figuring out mobile is going to take untold amount of iteration, but most publishers are loathe to devote the resources needed to figuring it out. Among Bergman’s “12 hard truths” about mobile is “it’s about to get worse.”

“The investment level is too small,” Bergman said. “If you go into any news digital arm, if you ask people who work on the website to raise their hands and people who work on apps to raise their hands, it’s still going to be leaning vastly to the website.”

Below are edited highlights of our conversation with Bergman:

Publishers have underestimated the mobile challenge.
The “year of mobile” has been declared annually since 2003. But the problem with change is it happens slowly and then all at once. Bergman has seen a propensity for publishers to underestimate the effort mobile will take, preferring instead to treat it as just another distribution channel for existing content.

“You can’t just extend what you do in desktop to a mobile world and expect to succeed,” he said.

Understanding mobile means understanding the shift.
Many publishers see mobile traffic as new traffic. But there is displacement. That means, with mobile monetization rates so low, they’re trading quarters for pennies.

“Most of the revenue in the Internet is being driven by the desktop, so there will be an inevitable shift in revenue as well, and that’s when it will become very apparent for media companies who see a flattening of their desktop traffic and, therefore, a flattening of their revenue,” Bergman said.

Mobile is an oligarchy.
Digital advertising depends heavily on data. On the desktop Internet, thanks the cookie, data is plentiful. But in mobile, data is hard to come by, favoring those with logged-in users, such as giant platforms like Google, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

“It puts us all behind the eight ball,” Bergman said. “It’s so hard to compete. It’s a big challenge when they have such data scale”

News is an information problem.
Too many publishers define their mission too narrowly. They look at it as keeping people informed, but that’s hard in a world where Facebook, Google and other platforms are the first sources people turn to for information.

“The real world of competition is Facebook’s app, Twitter’s app, Flipboard’s app,” Bergman said. “It forces everyone to take a step back and think of what problems they’re solving and recognize the competition is much broader.”

Mobile is a marathon.
There have been plenty of high-profile failures when it comes to rethinking news in a mobile context. Consider Circa or even NYT Now. But that misses the point, argues Bergman.

“So much of this is iteration, and so much of it comes from patience,” he said. “You need time to iterate. Some companies are more patient than others.”


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