Implementing a Mobile Strategy as an Independent Publisher
A b-to-b publisher shares lessons from its first app launch.
Mobile advertising in the United States by several estimates will reach a total of $5 billion in 2015. While a large share goes to b-to-c publishers, the trend represents opportunity for b-to-b publishers as well.
With all the potential (and potential for confusion) here are a few tips on implementing a mobile strategy, especially if your just now evaluating your mobile plan.
Mobilizing your Web Sites
One of the first areas to address with your mobile strategy is with your current Web site. Depending on your site platform(s) and content, this process is relatively simple. As a visitor arrives on your site, you can install code that reads the agent of the visitor. The agent is basically which Web browser, spider or otherwise is hitting the site. If the agent is a Web browser associated with a mobile device, a re-direct to mobile content can be implemented. While the Web browsers on smart phones continue to get better, the real estate presents the limiting factor. So while on the iPhone a standard Web site may look good, browsing, clicking and zooming can present challenges.
Many third party providers that deliver video will have smart delivery to ensure that if the agent is mobile, both size and codec, are delivered versus video delivered to a PC.
On some site platforms such as WordPress and others, there are plug-ins that can be installed and configured to add custom CSS styling to site content and strip out most everything except for main post entries and simplify the navigation menus for easier mobile browsing. The plug-ins detect the agent and automatically display the mobile style and framework. This makes mobilizing a site a very simple process.
For other platforms, more custom CSS and coding strategies may be needed to do a clean mobile conversion. The Design World site was built custom on .NET / C# and in our case presented substantially more work to do a clean mobile version in parallel to the main site development. In this case, we built a stand-alone site (m.designworldonline.com) for mobile content. This also provided more control in cross linking other site content and custom advertising options. On special campaigns or product launches, a mobile microsite is very effective since it is built basically from the ground up to be optimized for mobile devices.
The challenge with mobile re-direction is that with devices such as the iPad, directing to a mobile version of your site might be sub optimal, as the real estate and function of a tablet is a much different experience. Fortunately the agent varies slightly on tablet devices and code on a site can direct a tablet browser back to the main site, or even another custom coded site specifically for tablets.
App Versus Site?
There are multiple versions of your Web site to accommodate mobile users and smartphone applications bring up even more considerations. With Design World Magazine and network of over 25 Web sites, we decided an app would be an excellent way to aggregate select content from across many sources. In early 2010 we surveyed our audience and BlackBerry devices came back at the top of use list, so the decision was made to start there first. We then contracted with a developer that ended in a compete failure based in large part on the complexity in app creation for RIM devices. The proliferation of different RIM devices and different programming requirements for the devices convoluted our efforts. In addition, the developer indicated they could program for Apple iOS and the Android platform, so there was some level of distraction.
From our first setback, we took a quick look at the market and decided to hit the iPad / iPhone first. When we started we did not anticipate how high the iPad consumption would be, but then no one did. We also decided to do a + App, meaning it would run native for both iPad and iPhone. In the end, our early mistake proved to be a good decision and enabled us to make the right bet with the iPad app development project.
With the Design World + App we decided on a third party (Mutual Mobile) team as we lacked the appropriate coding experience internally and Apple has a fair amount of requirements on optimizing applications for audio and video streaming over cellular networks, functionality. Internally we have enough software development expertise to manage the process, but this too can be challenging in writing the specification and keeping features locked in a schedule. Otherwise, feature creep will kill deadlines and budget.
While managing our iPad app, we also decided to build our own app for our community site, EngineeringExchange.com. The platform for this site uses a public API (application programming interface), so data can be passed to and from the site via the API. In conjunction with another SaaS site, we were able to spin up a lightweight App for the iPhone using the EngineeringExchange API along with feeds to form the site around blog posts, forums and video. We were able to give members the ability to log into their accounts, update their status and blog post from their iPhones.
It took three submissions to the App store to get approved, thereby validating our decision to use an experienced third party on the iPad App. However, we were able to mitigate a rather large expense while continually build a better user experience and capture some intellectual capital.
To contrast, the Engineering Exchange App took a total of two months, a fair amount of fixed overhead and a minimum monthly fee to launch and maintain. This also based on having the API and many RSS feeds ready to roll into the app to use as the conduit for data transfer. The Design World + App took over seven months to develop, lots of project management time and so far over $25,000.
For now, we are on the sidelines with Microsoft. Android is an important player, but code developed for the iPad is not very portable to Android ‘Honeycomb’ apps. The notion of HTML5 may alleviate some issues, but its hard to see convergence anytime soon. HTML5 promises the idea of “develop once, distribute to many” and HTML5 has very media rich features to produce app-like native performance from a Web-based protocol. Apps, however, are firmly entrenched and offer performance advantages, offline advantages and act as a kind of ‘pay-wall’ (for paid apps) that a lot of publishers are seeking.
Including a clean, mobile-friendly version of your Web site and smart re-direction based on agent is the overall foundation of any mobile strategy. Looking at applications across various platforms if they fit your business model is essential as the technology is moving fast on this front. Finally, if print is still part of your mix, utilizing QR codes can bridge print to online in an efficient way.
Marshall Matheson is SVP of online media at WTWH Media.